The USCGC Polar Star icebreaker sits outside McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Commissioned in 1976, Polar Star is currently the only heavy icebreaker in the United States. Photo: Mariana O’Leary
The planet is warming and the ice is melting in the Arctic1) at an alarming rate. But contrary to what may seem like common sense, the building of new icebreakers by the United States will not make yesterday’s war today. Regardless of humanity’s failures in the fight against climate change, there will be plenty of ice to break in the Arctic2) for the foreseeable future and even the melting of the ice3) poses a significant hazard to ships.
The United States lags woefully behind other Arctic states in building and maintaining a world-class icebreaker fleet and, thanks to various problems4) and construction delays,5) it may be another five years or more before the Coast Guard’s first new Polar Security Cutter (PSC)6) is fully operational and breaking ice in the Arctic. In the meantime, shipping in the Arctic will continue to increase,7) fish stocks will move further north,8) and continental shelves9) will continue to be mined for more resources. With all this activity, the demand for Arctic infrastructure will increase, especially deep-sea ports capable of servicing vessels engaged in these expanding areas.
But without an icebreaker, building all that infrastructure is a bit like hosting a baseball game without bats. Icebreakers are essential to the shipping system and infrastructure of the Great Lakesten) and New England,11) paving the way for vital shipments of fuel oil and essential goods to both regions. With planning and a bit of luck, Alaska will join the robust economic activity enjoyed by these regions.
There was a brief glimmer of hope that this issue was taken seriously by the Trump administration when it issued a seemingly powerful 2020 memorandum.12) on safeguarding American national interests at both poles. The memo breathed new life into efforts to accelerate the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaker acquisition program, while seeking transitional solutions to fill gaps until that acquisition program can be completed, including a new effort to lease icebreakers.13) of the other Arctic state and strategic partner, Finland. Unfortunately, like many efforts, good and bad, during this administration, they failed to “stick the landing.” The effort died with little result or change of course.
The US Coast Guard’s plan to build a new fleet of heavy and medium icebreakers in US shipyards is a sound strategic move and deserves sustained long-term congressional funding. The United States must rebuild the capacity of American heavy icebreaker shipyards at all costs. But the lack of a solid transition plan to begin consistent, year-round icebreaker operations in the U.S. Arctic in 2022 is alarming. As an Arctic state and a superpower, the United States should not rely on a heavy old icebreaker,14) POLAR STAR, which has also engaged in annual operations in Antarctica that occupy its entire lifespan in any given year, and a medium-aged icebreaker,15) HEALY, which was designed primarily for scientific missions.
A transitional solution, regardless of its short-term expense and logistical nightmares, would allow the United States to immediately maintain year-round maritime domain awareness in the Arctic, provide search and rescue capability in remote areas and to train more Coast Guard personnel in the dangerous and niche nature of polar icebreaking. This experience, training, and presence will only serve to properly equip the nation for much-needed investment in America’s Arctic and ensure that it walks before it has to run to catch up with infrastructure investments and the increasing of maritime transport.
What might a transitional solution look like? It could include a combination of the following: a foreign leased or purchased icebreaker with known capabilities (with appropriate Congressional commitment and reflagging to the United States), partnership with an ally or partner of the Arctic which has an icebreaker capability, accelerating the construction of the PSC currently underway, a massive investment in POLAR STAR and HEALY to ensure they can execute the mission flawlessly in the near future, or release POLAR STAR Antarctic Tasks to focus on the US Arctic. These are just some of the ideas that the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Coast Guard, and congressional oversight committees could consider more comprehensively, provided Congress and the administration commit to fund this important mission.
This effort will not come cheap, and leasing or purchasing a unique icebreaker that will be different from the rest of the eventual class of ship is often described as inefficient. The only thing that costs more is for the most powerful nation in the world to be chained for five years without any significant icebreaker presence in the Arctic.
Jeremy Greenwood is an experienced US Coast Guard officer who currently serves as a Federal Executive Fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. The opinions expressed here are solely the personal opinions of the author and do not represent the US government, the Brookings Institution, or any other entity. .