Is the United States Having an ‘Arctic Moment’ on Icebreaker Acquisition?

In a surprising move on June 9, the White House released a memorandum directed to the secretaries of defense, commerce, energy, and homeland security (in addition to the Office of Management and Budget) calling for a review of the United States’ icebreaking capacity in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

What is new about this memo, and why was it released now?

High-level calls for a modernized and strengthened U.S. icebreaking fleet are not new. What is new in this memorandum is the Trump administration’s spotlight on the woefully unacceptable lack of U.S. capabilities in the polar regions—and specifically in the Arctic. Today, the United States struggles to maintain a fully operational presence in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. It is reliant on one lone, 44-year-old heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, to survive at least four more years or longer (after suffering multiple breakdowns, including a “near-catastrophic” mechanical failure in 2016) to resupply the U.S. McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica, and one medium icebreaker, the Healy, which is normally dedicated to polar scientific research. Over the last several years, government studies have recommended, and the Coast Guard has concurred, that the United States needs three heavy and three medium ice-strengthened icebreakers, or polar security cutters (PSCs), to ensure a persistent presence in the polar region.

The Trump administration announced in April 2019 that it was moving forward with a $746 million contract with Mississippi’s VT Halter Marine for the construction of the first heavy icebreakers, which should undergo sea trials by 2024 if current timetables hold. The Coast Guard’s FY 21 budget submission, now with Congress, requests funding to complete construction of a second heavy icebreaker. But the United States could find itself without a heavy icebreaker for several years should the Polar Star suddenly become unseaworthy. Publicly recognizing this current vulnerability is a significant and important shift. To address the shortfall, the White House is calling for a 60-day analysis of the possibility of leasing operational vessels to conduct specified missions during FY 22-FY 29, until the new PSCs are operational. Canada, Sweden, and Finland, as well as private sector resources, are all viable options that have excess icebreaker capacities, although they would not necessarily meet U.S. legislative provisions.

The United States has previously leased the Swedish icebreaker Oden to conduct missions to McMurdo—however this method is unreliable, as the Oden was recalled by the Swedish government to provide icebreaking services in the Baltic Sea. Recent studies determined that leasing polar icebreakers is not viable for the Coast Guard due to limited availability and inability to conduct multiple missions. In fact, the Coast Guard’s 2019 environmental impact study for the polar security cutter concluded that there are no existing vessels available for lease that “substantially meet” the service’s icebreaking needs. While some of the Coast Guard’s posturing on leasing was due to fears that a leasing option would preclude procurement, it appears that although the White House may have overruled the Coast Guard on the leasing question (though the assessment itself does not predispose an outcome), the Coast Guard is getting a new icebreaker fleet.

What is also new is the White House specifying (or perhaps dictating) that future medium-strength PSCs will be designed for “the full range of national and economic security missions”—and not simply for breaking ice for scientific and other related operations. The memorandum calls for the aforementioned agencies to assess the feasibility of implementing unmanned aerial vehicle capabilities (both air and sea) and other requirements to maintain maritime domain awareness upon potential vessels not already on contract, which may impact the design of the new PSC. The memorandum also calls for a study to identify four basing locations—two domestic and two international—for the planned U.S. icebreakers. Pressed by the Alaska congressional delegation, last year’s National Defense Authorization Act mandated the Department of Defense assess possible locations for a deepwater “strategic” port in the Arctic. An obvious choice for Arctic-based operations would be on the Alaskan coastline as its proximity to the Bering Strait and Central Arctic Ocean is crucial for protecting U.S. territorial waters, exclusive economic zone, and coastline. It is presumed that Seattle, Washington, currently home to the Polar Star, would remain a preferred domestic port.

The memorandum’s call for two international basing locations is a more challenging proposition. Presumably, the United States will identify one international base near each pole, with Australia and New Zealand as potential locations in the south and perhaps Norway, Iceland, or the Kingdom of Denmark in the north. (Thule Air Base in Greenland, the U.S. armed forces’ northernmost installation and a deepwater port, would be a natural basing option.) However, set against the politically difficult backdrop of President Trump’s comments about purchasing Greenland, the Nordic countries and Canada’s fears of U.S. militarization of the Arctic, and U.S. congressional concerns about a spike in U.S. funding requirements for basing construction and maintenance, this initiative may be a tough a sell on both sides of the Atlantic.

This competition is what brings us to the “why now?” question.

Over the past year, the Trump administration has framed the Arctic in terms of great power competition. Addressing Russia and China’s growing military and economic presence in the region, Secretary of State Pompeo in a May 2019 speech in Finland described the Arctic as taking on a new strategic significance. This speech was followed several months later by President Trump’s enthusiasm related to a potential U.S. purchase of Greenland from the Kingdom of Denmark. Perhaps the timing of the memorandum was also meant to coincide with the formal June 10 reopening of the U.S. consulate in Nuuk, Greenland, and a $12 million Greenlandic economic development aid package, which remains politically controversial in Denmark.

But this competitive environment is real. Russian submarine and long-range bomber activity has significantly increased over the last several months , which is of increasing concern to U.S. allies, including the United Kingdom and Norway. On June 10, Russian long-range bombers flew within eight miles of U.S. airspace in Alaska—the closest flight in decades. Russia will also conduct a recently announced military exercise in the Arctic at the end of June. The United States reasserted its navigation rights in the Arctic last month when a joint U.S. Navy-UK Royal Navy freedom of navigation operation was conducted in the Barents Sea for the first time in over three decades. Russia and China are both expanding and modernizing their icebreaker fleets—Russia has announced it will place weapons on its newest icebreakers, and China has announced it will construct its first nuclear-fueled icebreaker.

Though icebreakers are not a substitute for a robust, well-resourced, and consistent whole-of-government U.S. Arctic policy, they do provide a critical capability that protects the United States and assures U.S. access to both polar regions. This is a welcome recognition of a severe lack of U.S. capabilities and a rapid assessment to enhance this deficit. The one—and perhaps most important—issue the memorandum is silent about is identification of the budget resources to pay for this important capability in an increasingly strained fiscal environment. Let’s hope this “Arctic moment” is not lost.

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Max Shafron is a research associate with the CSIS Europe Program.

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Heather A. Conley

Max Shafron