Breaking the Ice

With the melting of the Arctic icecap and opening of new sea lanes (see previous article here), many countries are expecting to benefit from the upcoming development of economic activities...

With the melting of the Arctic icecap and opening of new sea lanes (see previous article here), many countries are expecting to benefit from the upcoming development of economic activities in the High North, ranging from shipping to mining, to drilling. However, the Arctic’s harsh climate often renders these activities physically impossible, economically nonviable or too perilous without the use of icebreakers.

While Russia and China are taking the necessary steps the equip their coast guards and naval forces with modern icebreakers, the US, the current chair of the Arctic Council, is lagging behind and is in desperate need for decent capabilities. A lack of proper ice-breaking capabilities could cause the US not to be able to adapt to the “historic changes of the Arctic,” as Republican politician Don Young put it.

An icebreaker is a hull-strengthened ship designed to navigate in icy waters. Their two main missions are to open waterways and escort merchant or military ships through ice-filled waters. With the US’ recent decision to allow the Dutch oil company Shell to resume its drilling activities off the Alaska coast in the Chukchi Sea, icebreakers will definitely be needed to ensure the safety of business operations.

The coastguard carries out numerous tasks, such as responding to oil spills or providing sailors with search and rescue (SAR) capabilities. But the US has only two polar-class icebreakers, which both have exceeded their originally intended 30-year service lives. While the US Polar Star is a heavy polar icebreaker (meaning that it can break through more ice than a regular icebreaker), the Healy is primarily designed for scientific research in the Arctic and Antarctic and not so much for SAR. In a recent statement, the US Coast Guard has estimated that it would need six icebreakers, three heavy and three medium-class ones, to cover America’s needs in the two polar regions.

Although everybody in the US agrees that a new fleet of icebreakers is needed, the procurement process remains a contentious matter at the political level. “This is not a coast guard unique challenge. It’s a global access challenge that requires a national solution,” Admiral Paul Zukunft, commandant of the USCG, said in February this year.

The cost of a new ship is around $1 billion and freeing up such a big amount of money is not easily done in the US – especially when the government does not consider the Arctic as a high-priority zone. In May, Alaska’s Republican Senator Murkowski introduced the bipartisan Icebreaker Recapitalization Act with Washington’s Democratic Senator Cantwell that would authorize the construction of up to 6 heavy icebreakers. But when Illinois Democratic Senator Durbin proposed adding $940 million to the spending bill to acquire a new icebreaker, Sen. Murkowski voted against it because it would exceed the government’s spending caps, known as sequestration, at a time when the US is trying to reduce its deficit.

As a result, there is no plan for constructing a new icebreaker to date in the US.

On the other hand, having an icebreaker built in Russia is surely not a problem. Today, Russia owns some 40 icebreakers and plans on building another dozen. On top of that, the Kremlin owns all the world’s nuclear icebreakers, six of them, which are much more efficient than the diesel-powered ones.

Russian politicians have a more pragmatic approach to the issue: “We need to make a decision on additional construction of the third and fourth icebreakers in the next year and a half considering the growth of cargo volumes transported across the Northern Sea Route,” Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin said in May.

Russia’s ambitions in the Arctic are made very clear: it sees it as a land of opportunities filled with natural resources and new navigation lanes. To achieve its geopolitical goals, Russia started the construction of four icebreakers for its Navy, with the first one expected to be operational by 2017, as well as more nuclear icebreakers for civilian purposes.

As for China, Bejing’s officials are expecting to have a new icebreaker built before 2016. It “will surpass China’s only icebreaker, the Xuelong, in scientific research and ice-breaking ability, greatly improving the country’s polar research capability,” the director of the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration claimed in June last year.

In May this year, the US took over the Arctic Council’s chairmanship and its program for the coming years focus on three areas: improving economic conditions in the North, Arctic ocean safety, security and stewardship and addressing the impacts of climate change. But without modern ice-breaking capabilities, none of these objectives will be met and the US will be able to set an example in the region.

Victor Prevost

Victor Prévost is a junior geopolitics analyst living in Montréal, Canada. He owns a Master's in International Security and Defence and previously worked at United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna for the Civil Society Team, and for the French Ministry of Defence at the Canadian embassy in Ottawa. Having a strong interest in northern politics, he currently runs a blog on economic and defence issues in the Arctic, at
One Comment
  • Ice breakers | nwpassagerevisited
    9 October 2015 at 8:02 pm
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    […] Americans and Russians are looking develop their icebreaking fleet as the waters of the NW Passage become more available but I thought over the next two posts we could […]

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