A Seattle-based Coast Guard cutter is almost halfway through a months-long voyage that took it through the ice-choked Northwest Passage north of Canada and will eventually result in a circumnavigation of North America once it transits through the Panama Canal and returns home.
The mission of the USCGC Healy, a 420-foot medium ice breaker, was to stage military exercises alongside allies like Canada and carry out high-latitude scientific research. Another assignment was to demonstrate a U.S. presence in the Arctic amid long-term warming trends that are reducing the ice and dramatically increasing maritime traffic in the region.
One problem for American strategists seeking to make a statement: By itself, the 22-year-old Healy represents exactly 50% of the U.S. Coast Guard’s “fleet” of active polar icebreakers. Russia, by contrast, boasts dozens and is building more, and other states vying for influence and resources in the Arctic also outpace the U.S.
The USCGC Polar Star, also based in Seattle, is a heavy icebreaker and even older. It was commissioned in 1976. A third USCG heavy icebreaker, the Polar Sea, is being cannibalized to provide parts for its sister ship. For years, Coast Guard officials have been pleading with Congress to help them bulk up its icebreaker fleet to ensure continued access to the polar regions.
With both Russia and China making a concerted push for influence in the Arctic, the lagging American presence is even more glaring in light of the new Pentagon strategy of focusing on “great-power” rivals.
“We absolutely need to be up in the Arctic and down in Antarctica on a more persistent basis than we are today. Great power competition is alive and well there,” Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the Coast Guard, told the House Homeland Security Committee at a hearing this summer.
Russia currently has at least 40 heavy icebreakers, including six that are nuclear-powered, and intends to use the northern sea route through the Arctic as essentially an economic toll road, Adm. Schultz said.
“There will be freedom-of-navigation issues in the future,” Adm. Schultz warned.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the development of the Arctic a strategic priority and moved to make sure Moscow plays the dominant role. The Agence France-Presse news service reported this month that Russian state corporate giants such as Gazprom Neft, Norilsk Nickel and Rosneft are already at work in the Arctic exploring for oil, gas and minerals.
“The Arctic region has enormous potential,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak told AFP. “In terms of resources, we’re talking about 15 billion metric tons of oil and 100 trillion cubic meters of gas, enough for tens if not hundreds of years,” he said.
In 2019, the Coast Guard and the Navy awarded a $745 million design and construction contract for up to three polar security cutters to Mississippi-based VT Halter Marine. The contract includes options that could push the price tag to more than $1.9 billion.
The new cutters “will fill a current, definitive need for the Coast Guard’s statutory mission and provide support for other mission needs in the higher latitudes vital to the economic vitality, scientific inquiry, and national interests of the United States,” company officials said in a statement.
The first ship delivery is scheduled for 2024 with the second in 2025 and the last in early 2027, VT Halter Marine said.
The U.S. has been an Arctic nation since it purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. The Arctic Circle is the source of untapped oil and gas reserves along with rare earth minerals. Vessels like the Healy and the Polar Star are the most effective tools for maintaining access to the icy regions for scientific, economic and security purposes, advocates say.
“They definitely are invaluable. We really do rely on these ships to be able to get deep into what ice remains and take measurements, said Jim Thompson, an oceanographer at the University of Washington. “It’s unfortunate how limited that capability is. I would almost use the word ‘embarrassing.’”
Even with the global warming trends, there are parts of the Arctic and Antarctic that are impassable without an icebreaker, Mr. Thompson said.
“When these platforms are available, I’d give us pretty high marks of making good use of them,” he said. “It can’t really overstate it. It’s an essential tool for this kind of work.”
Russia accounts for more than half of the Arctic Ocean coastline, so the Kremlin’s fixation on high-latitude opportunities might be understandable. But China, which is not an Arctic nation, also has ambitions to become a major player in the region, arguing it needs a presence and access as it builds up a global trading economy second only to the U.S. Beijing is constructing its own fleet of icebreakers as part of what it has dubbed its “Polar Silk Road” economic initiative.
Officials at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington said the geopolitical environment in the Arctic region is changing as both allies and competitors contend for economic and strategic advantage.
“Russia and China exemplify that strategic competition,” the Coast Guard said in a statement. “Both have declared the Arctic a strategic priority. Both have made significant investments in new or refurbished capabilities and both are attempting to exert direct or indirect influence across the region.”
Malte Humpert, the founder of The Arctic Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said the northern sea route was frozen year-round with little to no commercial traffic as late as the early 2000s.
“Suddenly, climate change is offering this opportunity for Russia to access resources that previously would have been impossible. Now you have a whole new ocean that is opening up,” he said. “It’s a new theater of engagement — just like the Mediterranean, the Atlantic or Pacific.”
Wear and tear
Heavy icebreakers like the Polar Star are capable of cutting through ice that is at least 10 feet thick while medium cutters like the Healy can break through ice packs that are about eight feet thick. But years of crashing through the ice have taken their toll on both vessels.
In 2018, the Polar Star had major mechanical problems while carving a path through the Ross Sea in Antarctica for its annual Operation Deep Freeze mission to resupply McMurdo Station, the primary U.S. hub there. In 2020, a fire broke out on the Healy that caused Coast Guard officials to scrap a key Arctic excursion to help broaden the U.S. footprint there and push back against Russian expansion.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, said Russia has opened more than a dozen deep-water ports, military bases and airfields in the Arctic as part of its push to control the region.
“Without persistent U.S. presence in the Arctic, we risk leaving an opening for these types of aggressive actions to continue,” Mr. Sullivan said in a statement provided to The Washington Times. “Our rivals in Moscow and Beijing already acknowledge and are acting upon the Arctic’s geopolitical significance and it is well past time for the U.S. to do the same.”
The Coast Guard this year awarded a $119 million contract to Mare Island Dry Dock in California to keep the Polar Star running for at least another four years until the first new-generation polar security cutter joins the fleet. The work will be done in stages so missions such as Operation Deep Freeze can still be met, Coast Guard officials said.
For the last two decades, the focus of U.S. political and military leaders has been on hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan, with the Polar regions taking a back seat. Even now, it will be a challenge to keep policymakers focused on the Arctic and Antarctic, said Mr. Humpert with The Arctic Institute.
“This needs to be part of a sustained effort,” he said. “It really starts with Congress. They appropriated trillions of dollars to Afghanistan and Iraq [and] the same needs to happen to the Arctic.”
Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, said the wealth of resources in the Arctic means that the future belongs to whoever controls the region. The Coast Guard’s coming polar security cutters are only part of the solution, he argued.
“The second part is securing the physical infrastructure to support home-porting [and] deployment in and to Alaska,” he said in a statement. “America is an Arctic nation only because of Alaska and it is time we utilize our state’s unique positioning to enhance our national security and ensure peace and stability in the region in the decades ahead.”