The US Coast Guard is asking for help responding to a 'mini arms buildup' with Russia in the Arctic

  • Ocean-going countries are showing new interest in operating in the Arctic and Antarctic, as receding ice makes waters more accessible.
  • Icebreaking ships are vital for operations in those regions, but the US has fewer such ships than its neighbours in the area, including Russia.
  • The US is pushing to build more icebreakers, but the threat of militarization has added wrinkles to those plans.

Receding ice in the Arctic and Antarctic has drawn the attention of the world’s ocean-going powers, and the US military, led by the Coast Guard, has been pushing for more resources to catch up to other countries operating in those regions.

The Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet is the backbone of its operations around the North and South Poles, but that fleet is comparatively small. Of the three it has, only two are operational: the heavy icebreaker Polar Star and medium icebreaker Healy, which mainly does scientific work.

The Polar Star is charged with keeping navigation lanes open in the Arctic and Antarctic, but it was built in the mid-1970s and is already beyond its 30-year service life.

Crew members have had to shop online for replacement parts for the ship’s ageing computers, and it sails with a year’s supply of food in case it gets stuck, according to CBS News.

Considerable repair work is needed to keep the ship afloat. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft has said the Polar Star “is literally on life support.”

The Coast Guard is grappling these difficulties amid what has been called an “icebreaker gap” with Russia. (Though some have said Russian naval expansion, not icebreakers, is the real concern.)

As of May, Russia – which has the world’s largest Arctic coastline – had more than 40 icebreakers, including four operational nuclear-powered heavy polar icebreakers and 16 medium polar icebreakers.

The Coast Guard’s Pacific Area chief, Vice Adm. Fred Midgette, whose command ranges from the US West Coast to Asia and from the Arctic to the Antarctic, told CBS News this week that Russia is still outspending the US.

“If you look at what Russia is doing, there’s almost a mini arms buildup going on in the Arctic,” he said.

Coast Guard Polar Star icebreaker AntarcticaUS Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuystThe Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star cuts a channel into a field of fast ice in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, January 7, 2016.

Not all of Russia’s more than 40 icebreakers are of the same type, but Moscow is not the only country with an advantage over the US.

Finland has seven medium polar icebreakers, though four are designated for Baltic use. China has three, but all of them are light polar icebreakers. Canada has two operational medium polar icebreakers and two under construction, while Sweden has seven, though three are medium icebreakers designed for Baltic use.

‘The Coast Guard must be funded as a military service’

Zukunft and the Coast Guard are pushing for more icebreakers. The Homeland Security Department has said the Coast Guard may need up to six new icebreakers – three heavy ones and three medium ones – to meet mission demands at high latitudes.

This fall, the Coast Guard and Navy released a joint draft request for proposal for the construction of a heavy icebreaker, with an option to build two more. The acquisition cost of a new polar icebreaker has been put at $US1 billion, though the Coast Guard and Navy believe it could cost less than that.

But Zukunft told Defence & Aerospace Report last week that there was still doubt about the service’s funding going forward, saying that the Coast Guard needed to be on the same footing as the other service branches and that it “cannot continue to operate on the margins” of the defence budget.

The Coast Guard draws the vast majority of its funding from non-defence discretionary spending, Zukunft said, and the potential for a reduction in that pool of money in order to expand defence discretionary spending threatens to further hinder Coast Guard finances after five years of funding below floors set in the Budget Control Act.

“Our funding mechanism has got to change,” he said. “The Coast Guard must be funded as a military service.”

Zukunft said he was proposing was a 5% annualized increase in the service’s operating expenditures, which “gets us out of the basement” and provides “parity with the four armed services.”

The commandant also suggested a floor of $US2 billion for the Coast Guard’s acquisition budget.

“That would allow me to put icebreakers on budget within the United States Coast Guard,” he said. “That 5% and $US2 billion floor allows me to grow my workforce by 5,000 active-duty and 1,100 reserves, and at the same time I don’t have to cut my equally valued civilian workforce. It’s not a big ask.”

‘Is it to create chaos in the Arctic?’

Russian icebreakerWikimedia CommonsRussian icebreaker Yamal during the removal of manned drifting station North Pole-36 in August 2009.

As ice around the North and South Poles recedes, icebreakers are gaining importance beyond maintaining sea lanes and assisting other ships.

Their ability to navigate in harsh conditions makes them useful for projecting power. And a number of countries already outstripped the US when it comes to the icebreakers that can be deployed.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Michael McAllister, commander of the Coast Guard’s 17th district – which encompasses Alaska and the Arctic – has said the US is on good terms with its neighbours in the area, including Russia and China, with whom the US cooperates on waterway management, search and rescue, and law-enforcement matters.

But Washington has eyed Russian plans for its icebreakers warily.

“In 2020 – and we’re monitoring this very closely – Russia plans to launch two icebreaking corvettes,” Zukunft told Defence & Aerospace Report.

An experiment to see how an oil spill would play out in the Arctic. Picture: Getty Images

“So these are designed warships that can break ice and that can carry cruise missiles. To what end is opaque,” he added. “Is it to create chaos in the Arctic? Is it to make this an area that the United States would be denied access? We have to assume the answer to that question … is yes.”

Zukunft said he was encouraged by the both President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy as well as the 2018 National Defence Authorization Act, the latter of which includes a provision for the construction of at least one heavy icebreaker, which he said could be in the water by 2023.

But the Coast Guard commandant said there needed to be flexibility in how that icebreaker, and any that follow it into service, would be outfitted and deployed over its 30- to 40-year service life.

“We do need to look at potential militarization in the Arctic, so we need to reserve space, weight, power, if we have to put what I would call modules on an icebreaker to include an offensive weapon capability,” Zukunft said.

“We’ve had great interactions with the Navy as part of this integrated program office to look at all potential requirements for an icebreaker well into the 21st century to include something more than just point-defence weapons systems.”

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