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Global Warming Means the US Actually Needs More Icebreakers

President Obama says the US to get its act together on icebreakers, and it's something America needs to do if it really is serious about the Arctic — for a number of reasons.
September 8, 2015, 8:55am
Photo by Rob Rothway

"So what keeps me awake at night?" asked Admiral Paul Zukunft, commandant of the United States Coast Guard (USGC), during a speech at an Arctic symposium in July. "Let's take a look at our nation's icebreaking fleet," he answered his own question.

Yet US President Barack Obama's recent trip to Alaska could have Zukunft resting a little easier. During his visit, Obama noted that the US badly needs more icebreakers. It's been a looming issue for years, but the problem is no one's ever done anything about it. The question now is whether new attention from the White House will make this issue a priority.

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An icebreaker, by definition, must be able to break ice. But in the Arctic, where shore stations are scarce and satellite coverage is hard to come by, icebreakers serve as floating command-and-control platforms, which handle everything from search-and-rescue missions to emergency communications via oil spill response. Zukunft has stated that in the Arctic, there is "zero room for failure."

When climate change caused the polar ice to begin disappearing, new shipping routes, as well as oil and mineral deposits, started to open up for the first time in human history. Nearly 25 percent of the world's undiscovered gas and oil is thought to lie beneath the Arctic seafloor, as well as approximately $1 trillion worth of minerals.

The marine territory within America's Exclusive Economic Zone alone is thought to contain roughly 30 billion barrels of untapped oil (compared to about 36 billion barrels of proven reserves in the US), and about 72 billion barrels of natural gas. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that the US may have to defend its interests at some point. Paradoxically, less ice means more of a need for icebreakers.

Related: Tensions With Russia Overshadow Arctic Council Summit Focused on Combatting Climate Change

Russia has 41 icebreakers. The US has two. (That's bad for America, but maybe not quite as bad as it first sounds — Russia's Arctic is many times larger than the US section.)

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The USCGC Polar Star is a heavy-duty icebreaker, which can get through ice up to 6-feet thick. The USCGC Healy is fit for medium-duty, which means ice up to 4.5-feet thick. Having two icebreakers in service at the same time is crucial, so that if one gets stuck, the other can get it out. But while the Polar Star is at sea, the Healy is in the yard being maintained, and vice-versa. This means a complete lack of "self-rescue" capabilities, forcing a stuck US Coast Guard icebreaker to rely on the benevolence of other countries, with more capability, for help.

An "almost myopic focus on national security since 9/11" has had the coast guard doing a lot more law enforcement, and a lot less of everything else, former USGC Commander Stephen Flynn told VICE News. As such, the Arctic has gone almost entirely ignored for the better part of the past two decades.

Meanwhile, Russian military jets have been intercepted off of the northern coast of Norway, as well as Alaska and the Beaufort Sea. The Russian navy has increased the frequency and range of its Arctic patrols, and has deployed surface-to-air missiles along the Northern Sea Route, an area it controls.

In March, Russia staged an unannounced military exercise involving 45,000 troops, 41 warships, and 15 submarines. It's hard to tell exactly what it all means, though a report released in August by the Center for Strategic and International Studies compared Russia's "new Arctic narrative" to the Stalin-era dream of a "Red Arctic."

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Watch the VICE News documentary The Russians Are Coming: NATO's Frontier:

Meanwhile, the USCG has estimated it needs at least six icebreakers to properly do its job in the Arctic. (The most the US ever had was seven, in the years after WWII, when the navy and the coast guard still shared icebreaking duties.)

Though Congress has been willing to spend almost unlimited resources on the Navy, Flynn, who now serves as co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University, described the coast guard as chronically underfunded. He believes their being forced to do certain things "less well" in order to be able to handle others has created a "core societal risk."

"We've lost our way as a nation in that we've stopped investing in things that are in our national interest," Flynn told VICE News. "There's this mentality that we can't fund anything new unless we scrap something else. This is not a law of nature, this is a choice we've been making. And it's a very dangerous one."

Right now in the Arctic, we're essentially seeing the opening of the world's fifth ocean. This is not something modern civilization has ever dealt with before. There is no precedent to follow. The closest approximate parallel might be the European discovery of the New World 500 years ago, but even that doesn't really fit. It's almost like the Moon suddenly became habitable.

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Warmer temperatures have irrevocably changed Russia's Arctic frontier, which, until recently, had always been protected nearly year-round by a thick pack of ice.

"That's now melting, and for the first time in history, the Russians' northern border is exposed," former US Navy Rear Admiral David Titley told VICE News. "In the last 12 to 18 months, we've seen them building their military capabilities in the Arctic, and Russia's intentions are, frankly, not really known."

Titley, who led the US navy's task force on climate change and wrote the service's first Arctic "roadmap" in 2009, agrees with Obama that the coast guard needs new icebreakers. He supports the president's plan to speed up the process by two years, aiming for delivery of the first vessel in 2020, instead of 2022. What he doesn't understand is why the USGC only requested $6 million in its 2015 budget toward it. (For comparison's sake, Russia says it is planning to invest $4.3 billion in its Arctic program over the next five years.)

"The next-generation icebreaker is a billion-dollar ship," Titley said, joking that $6 million would "barely cover the study team's coffee budget."

This gives Titley the impression that the US is "fundamentally not serious" about its icebreakers. America's overall defense budget is in the neighborhood of $750 billion a year. Titley noted that building a brand-new icebreaker would require an expenditure of 1/750th, or just over 0.1 percent, of that amount.

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The powers that be know precisely what the coast guard needs, Titley added. However, it's much easier to appropriate a half-million dollars for a study than to actually build a ship.

"We have so many Arctic strategies, and action plans, and roadmaps, if you put all that paper together, you could coat the Arctic all over again in white," said Titley. "Studies are easy. The hard part starts after the studies are done, when you have to work to sell your budget, and sell those priorities, to Congress, which ultimately appropriates the funds. Without that, it's all talk."

Aside from Russia, China — which calls itself a "near-Arctic state" — is in the Arctic, as well. The Chinese are also eager to project power in the region, and during Obama's visit to Alaska, five People's Liberation Army Navy ships were spotted off the coast.

Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have interests in the Arctic, as do India, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. Being an also-ran in the Arctic hardly adds up to a long-term way for America to maintain leverage or status in the world, which, admitted Titley, some people might not see as such a bad thing.

He added, however: "I don't think anyone's ready for America to become Great Britain just yet, where our best days are 100 years behind us."

* * *

Last winter, the USGC began to explore the possibility of leasing foreign icebreaking vessels to begin to try and fulfill its obligations in the Arctic.

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"The challenge with the lease option is you score that lease all up front, you can't spread the cost out over 30 years and then you lose the flexibility of where and how you operate that ship," Commandant Zukunft said at the time.

There are other issues, too. For one, the lease option — at least for the heavy icebreakers the Coast Guard says it needs — isn't really feasible in the extremely tight current market, according to Mika Mered, of the Polarisk Group, a London-based risk consultancy.

"There are no heavy icebreakers available for lease on the market today," Mered told VICE News.

Theoretically, the US could buy an existing icebreaker from an ally — there are Canadian and European icebreaker fleets — but with so much going on in the Arctic, Mered said no one is selling, either. The only other option would be for the coast guard to rent light or medium-duty icebreakers from a country like Finland, which Mered said doesn't use its Baltic fleet during the summer months.

As for the USGC's woeful economic situation, Mered doesn't lay the blame at its feet. It's not that the coast guard don't know how to lobby or play politics. "It's just that nobody cared about the Arctic before the Russians reignited this old rivalry," he said. "People simply never thought about it."

Related: Russia Just Laid Claim to a Vast Chunk of the Arctic

Russia's Arctic ambitions get a lot of play in the media, and Charles Ebinger, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution's Energy Security and Climate Initiative, understands why.

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Still, Ebinger also told VICE News that there are other issues facing US Arctic interests that require America's immediate attention.

As Arctic ice recedes, more and more large cruise ships are venturing into the area. The Bering Strait, which Ebinger described as a treacherous body of water under the best of circumstances, falls under US jurisdiction. However, it lacks legitimately recognized channels of passage — the last depth surveys were taken in 1915.

"I've heard several admirals say their biggest nightmare isn't the president calling about a blowout in the Arctic, but rather, a cruise ship sinking with 1,000 people that they can't get off the boat," Ebinger told VICE News, explaining that this is precisely the sort of rescue operation a polar icebreaker would take on. "If you're up in the Chukchi Sea, the nearest port is down in Dutch Harbor, 800 miles away."

The lack of icebreaking capacity also means the US also has "little to no capacity to respond" to illegal fishing, which Ebinger said is being done by "a number of nations in our waters," nor can it adequately pursue drug traffickers coming down from Alaska. The US, he said, is "woefully unprepared."

The Arctic issue is, by all accounts, an international one. Yet, the American Arctic — Alaska, which people sometimes forget is bounded by foreign countries and sits completely apart from the rest of the US — is run largely through the Department of the Interior, about as domestic an agency as you can get.

There are no fewer than 21 federal agencies that deal with Alaska, said Ebinger, and they often institute policies and regulations that are at odds with each other. There are a handful of "excellent Arctic specialists at the State Department," he allowed. However, the Arctic, on the whole, doesn't get the attention or respect it deserves, internally.

"The most senior person on Arctic issues at the State Department is an office director, not a secretary or even an assistant secretary," Ebinger said. "Until there's a major crisis, it doesn't even go up the chain there. If we were serious about this, we'd have a Bureau of Polar Affairs on an equal status with all the other bureaus."

Since January 3, 1959, when Alaska became the 49th state, America has indisputably been an Arctic nation. But as Zukunft said back in July, under the current circumstances, "we are an Arctic nation in name only and not by deed."

Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @JustinRohrlich

Photo via DVIDS