Without Icebreakers, Arctic Infrastructure Won’t Matter
USCGC Polar Star icebreaker sits hove-to outside McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Commissioned in 1976, Polar Star is currently the United States’ only heavy icebreaker. Photo: Mariana O’Leary
The planet is warming and ice is melting in the Arctic1) at an alarming rate. But contrary to what may seem like common sense, the United States’ building of new icebreakers will not be waging yesterday’s war today. Regardless of humanity’s failures in the battle against climate change, there will be a lot of ice to break in the Arctic2) for the foreseeable future and even melting ice3) poses significant danger to vessels.
The United States is woefully behind its fellow Arctic States in building and maintaining a world-class fleet of icebreakers and, thanks to various issues4) and construction delays,5) it might be another five years or more until the Coast Guard’s first new Polar Security Cutter (PSC)6) is fully operational and breaking ice in the Arctic. In the meantime, Arctic shipping will continue to increase,7) fish stocks will flow further North,8) and continental shelves9) will continue to be exploited for more resources. With all of this activity, the demand for Arctic infrastructure will grow, especially deepwater ports capable of servicing the ships engaged in these expanding fields.
But without icebreakers, building all of this infrastructure is a bit like hosting a baseball game without any bats. Icebreakers are key to the maritime transportation system and infrastructure of the Great Lakes10) and New England,11) clearing the way for vital heating oil shipments and critical goods throughout both regions. With planning and a bit of luck, Alaska will join the robust economic activity that these regions enjoy.
There was a brief glimmer of hope that this issue was being taken seriously in the Trump Administration when it released a seemingly potent 2020 memorandum12) on safeguarding U.S. national interests at both poles. The memo breathed fresh life into the effort to accelerate the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaker acquisition program, while seeking bridging solutions to fill the gaps until that acquisition program could be completed, including a novel effort to lease icebreakers13) from fellow Arctic State and strategic partner, Finland. Unfortunately, like many efforts, both good and bad, during that Administration, they failed to “stick the landing”. The effort died with little result or change in trajectory.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s plans to build a new fleet of heavy and medium icebreakers in U.S. shipyards is a sound strategic decision and deserves sustained funding from Congress for the long-term. The United States must rebuild America’s heavy icebreaker shipyard capacity at all costs. But, the lack of any sound bridging plan to begin consistent year-round icebreaker operations in the U.S. Arctic in 2022 is alarming. As an Arctic State and superpower, the United States should not rely on one elderly heavy icebreaker,14) POLAR STAR, which is also committed to annual Antarctic operations that occupy all of its service life in a given year, and one medium aging icebreaker,15) HEALY, which was designed primarily for scientific missions.
A bridging solution, regardless of its short-term expense and logistical nightmares, would allow the United States to immediately sustain a year-round maritime domain awareness in the Arctic, provide search and rescue capability to remote areas, and train more Coast Guard personnel in the dangerous and niche nature of polar icebreaking. This experience, training, and presence will only serve to well-equip the nation for a much-needed investment in the U.S. Arctic and ensure that it is walking before having to run to catch up with infrastructure investment and increased shipping.
What could a bridging solution look like? It could include a mix of the following: a foreign leased or purchased icebreaker with known capabilities (with proper Congressional engagement and re-flagging in the United States), a partnership with an Arctic ally or partner that has icebreaker capacity, expediting PSC construction currently underway, a massive investment in POLAR STAR and HEALY to ensure that they can perform the mission flawlessly for the near future, or freeing up POLAR STAR from Antarctic duties to focus on the U.S. Arctic. These are just some of the ideas that the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Coast Guard and Congressional oversight committees could consider more holistically, provided that Congress and the Administration commit to funding this important mission.
This effort will not be cheap and leasing or buying a one-off icebreaker that will be different from the rest of the eventual class of ships is often described as inefficient. The only thing more costly is having the most powerful nation in the world be strung along for five years without any meaningful icebreaker presence in the Arctic.
Jeremy Greenwood is an experienced U.S. Coast Guard officer currently serving as a Federal Executive Fellow with The Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. The opinions expressed herein are solely those personal views of the author and do not represent the U.S. Government, The Brookings Institution or any other entity.