The previously icebound waters of the Arctic are changing rapidly. The United States must act swiftly and decisively to ensure it is not left in a strategic lurch in the coming decades.
The retreat of sea ice from U.S. Arctic waters since 2000 has been precipitous.1 As a result, the number of ice-free days has climbed to a level where previously unreasonable or high-risk Arctic activities now are possible and increasingly common. This rapid environmental change is coupled with a widespread public misunderstanding of the actual conditions and risks of operating in the region, fueled by media reports that paint a picture of a vast new frontier to be explored while failing to adequately convey the risks and dangers of operating in high latitudes.
The United States, unfortunately, is arriving somewhat late to this party. Acquisition of a replacement for the Coast Guard’s only heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, is finally moving forward, but while the United States creeps forward with modest investment and tepid effort, it is being outpaced by the near-peer powers of Russia and China. The latter is especially troubling, as it is not even an Arctic nation.
There are three main requirements for ships capable of breaking ice:
- Strategic national imperatives, including sovereign presence, sea control, and power projection into icebound waters—typically functions of the U.S. Navy but ceded to the Coast Guard since 1965
- Safety, security, and stewardship of icebound waters in the maritime domain—all responsibilities assigned to the Coast Guard
- Economics, namely, assisting ships moving through icy waters to keep the national economic engine running in the frozen months—a responsibility that also falls to the Coast Guard
With these requirements in mind, the urgency of building icebreakers capable of operating in the Arctic is couched in four main areas of concern: resource exploitation, increased traffic, foreign government activity, and new rules and international agreements.
Newly ice-free Arctic waters are an invitation for exploration and exploitation of previously unavailable resources. Geologists note that the Arctic houses 13 percent of the world’s untapped oil reserves and 30 percent of its untapped natural gas supply.2 Many of these deposits are offshore and depend on reduced ice coverage for safe extraction. With recently rising oil prices, and the Trump administration’s intent to reopen off shore leases for drilling, gas and oil exploration in U.S. Arctic waters will be a reality in the future—and with it will come a demand for Coast Guard missions, including search and rescue, marine environmental protection, and port/flag state controls.3
Ice-free waters also mean seaborne access to shore-based mining and an economical means of transporting minerals and ore for additional processing, which also will demand Coast Guard presence.
Then there are living resources. Scientists are tracking the northward migration of fish stocks into the warming and increasingly ice-free waters of the Arctic.4 This migration is happening relatively quickly, and scientists and regulators are struggling to fully understand and accurately manage the resource. Fishing fleets will follow the fish stocks to the north, well before regulations and management protections are in place to guide them. At present, a multinational agreement prohibits high-seas fishing in the Arctic, but it does not restrict the rights of domestic fishing fleets in their respective exclusive economic zones.5 While the great distances and scant infrastructure of the Arctic have limited the scope of this problem thus far, the Coast Guard is not ready to fulfill its statutory mission to monitor commercial fishing and protect these fish stocks from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
In a reduced-ice environment, there is greater demand for shipping through previously inaccessible regions, both for deliveries of goods and cargo and to reap the advantage of the significantly shorter shipping route from Asia to Europe. The fabled Northwest Passage transits mostly through Canadian waters but also requires passage through the Bering Strait and U.S. waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. As with traffic through U.S. waters on any coast, the Coast Guard bears a significant responsibility for the safe, secure, and environmentally clean passage of these vessels, supported by search and rescue assets and appropriate aids to navigation.
In addition to the destinational and transit shipping, tourist interest in the region has grown significantly. This includes small vessels such as the Altan Girl, a home-built, single-handed 36-foot aluminum vessel, large vessels such as the Crystal Serenity (820 feet, 68,870 tons), and everything in between.6 Eco-tourists and cruise ship passengers lured by the beauty of the Arctic will arrive in varying degrees of preparation for the challenges of operating in such an environment. And the picture painted by every media story about climate change and decreased ice coverage only serves to discourage adequate planning and preparation. The Coast Guard will have an outsized role in ensuring the safety of these individuals when things fail to go according to plan—and in the Arctic, things seldom go according to plan.
Foreign Government Activity
Led in part by Russia, the level of militarization in the Arctic has grown. Russia has established (or reestablished) 14 Arctic military bases and laid the keels for Ivan Papanin-class ice-breaking corvettes, planned with missile systems.7 Every other maritime Arctic nation, including Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark, either operates, has started construction, or plans to build armed vessels capable of operating in Arctic waters. For Canada, this is six Harry deWolfe-class Arctic patrol vessels. For Finland, it is the “Squadron 2020” project. For Norway, it is the Arctic patrol vessel Svalbard and plans for three huge (136-meter) Ice-class patrol vessels.8 Denmark operates the Knut Rasmussen-class ice-strengthened offshore patrol vessels.
At present, the Coast Guard (or the U.S. Navy) does not have an armed surface vessel capable of operating in ice-covered waters.
The Arctic, especially the high Arctic, is an unlikely place for an armed conflict between surface combatants. Nearly every aspect of environment seems to cater to the supremacy of submarines. The blanket of ice covering the sea makes traditional antisubmarine warfare techniques nearly impossible. The noise of a surface ship crushing through the ice reveals its location to all and simultaneously undermines its ability to gather any sensitive acoustic data. Surface vessels also are limited in their speed and maneuverability, and the barrier of ice eliminates any possible advantage posed by helicopters. While U.S. submarines will hold a significant advantage in this environment, they cannot effectively assert sovereignty or enforce laws and treaties.
The Arctic area where armed conflict between surface combatants is most likely to occur is in the marginal ice zone. This region is hazardous for non-ice-strengthened vessels but is easily navigated by those with the correct equipment. Of course, the United States is severely lagging in this area.
In addition to military posturing, many nations, Arctic and otherwise, are moving into the polar regions. China has completed its first domestically built icebreaker, the Xue Long 2. The original Xue Long, built as an Arctic cargo ship, operates annually in the Arctic, often in the U.S. exclusive economic zone, performing “scientific research.” And China has announced intentions to build its first nuclear-powered icebreaker, setting it ahead of all Arctic nations except Russia.9
As near-peer competitors continue making major investments in icebreakers and Arctic infrastructure, the United States must move forcefully and rapidly just to keep up. The current approach destines us to trail decades behind.
Other Arctic nations have taken steps to increase their control, authorities, and rights in the region. Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway have submitted claims to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The United States has collected significant data to support such a claim; however, it has not yet submitted one because it has not ratified the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea. It could be argued that the principle of extended continental shelf demarcation has entered into customary international law, thereby providing the basis for a U.S. claim, but our reticence to accede to the convention ultimately could open future U.S. extended continental shelf claims to challenges from foreign powers.
New Rules and International Agreements
The United States needs to be responsive to new rules and agreements governing responsibilities in the Arctic. The first of these, the Arctic Aeronautical and Maritime SAR agreement, came into force in 2013. With it, the United States (and, by default, the Coast Guard) bears responsibility for search and rescue for a large sector of the Arctic north of Alaska and stretching to the North Pole. A significant portion of these waters remain ice covered year-round and are not routinely visited by ships. But the growing number of daily transpolar flights that cross through the U.S. Arctic SAR region and the increasing surface shipping and tourist traffic that passes through the region create a real and immediate need for Coast Guard assets able to respond.
Another new agreement that presents new responsibilities for the Coast Guard is the IMO Polar Code. Passed in 2014 and now in effect, the code governs the design, construction, operations, training, and qualification of watchstanders and environmental regulations applying to ships operating in polar waters.
Over and over again, these international instruments and agreements create requirements and mandates for intergovernmental cooperation and support, all in functional areas that demand resources and capabilities from the U.S. Coast Guard.
A Strong Demand Signal
The Coast Guard currently is pursuing the acquisition of new heavy icebreakers. These ships must be followed by three additional medium icebreakers. With this fleet, the Coast Guard would be able to guarantee access to any place on earth’s oceans, year-round; provide a persistent presence in the U.S. Arctic; enable maritime domain awareness; secure the border; ensure maritime safety and security; protect the environment; support scientific research; enforce laws; and serve as a sentinel of U.S. interests in the region.
The demand signal is strong, but it will require bold and assertive moves by the Coast Guard, Navy, the White House, and congressional leaders to ensure the United States is not left behind in this time of strategic opportunity. From a Coast Guard perspective, icebreakers are a necessity to operate in the region. They are expensive—up to $750 million each—but that is about one-tenth the cost of a Zumwalt-class destroyer or 1.5 littoral combat ships, of which the Navy has ordered more than 30.
The Coast Guard’s publication of a new Arctic Strategic Outlook and award of the contract this spring for the detailed design and construction of the first three polar security cutters are excellent first steps, but the service cannot take its foot off the gas and must push forward with the acquisition of additional platforms to meet mission needs. The United States must commit the resources today to build out a fleet of new icebreakers or prepare to cede sovereignty in ice-covered waters to those who do.
1. “State of the Cryosphere: Sea Ice,” National Snow and Ice Data Center, 26 January 2018.
2. U.S. Coast Guard, Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal: Estimates of Undiscovered Oil and Gas North of the Arctic Circle (2008).
3. “Crude Prices Soar on Supply, Stockpile News,” Wall Street Journal, 27 June 2018, and “Trump Moves to Open Nearly All Offshore Waters to Drilling,” New York Times, 4 January 2018.
4. “Climate Change Forcing Fish Stocks North,” CBC, 11 October 2014.
5. “Nations Agree to Ban Fishing in Arctic Ocean for at Least 16 Years,” Science, 1 December 2017.
6. “Stuck in the Arctic,” Coast Guard Compass, 29 July 2014.
7. “Is Russia’s Planned ‘Combat Icebreaker’ a Serious Threat?” National Interest, 2 April 2018.
8. “Norway’s New Coast Guard Vessels for Arctic Waters,” Barents Observer, 25 June 2018.
9. “China Is Planning a Nuclear-Powered Icebreaker,” Popular Mechanics, 25 June 2018.