Russia has a crucial advantage over the US in the Arctic

Russia maintains a key advantage over the US in the Arctic, which is only continuing to grow. 

In 2017, Moscow is expecting the delivery of a new nuclear powered icebeaker. This would augment an additional six nuclear powered icebreakers already in service with the Russians, with at least a dozen other diesel icebreakers in service. 

By contrast, the US Coast Guard currently only has two diesel icebreakers in addition to some ice-capable tug boats and tenders. 

Icebreakers are not a direct military tool. Instead, these vessels play a mutli-faceted role in any nation’s Arctic strategy. The vessels allow a range of other merchant, survey, and military vessels to ply through the Arctic ice safely and in a year round manner.

“With commerce and traffic on the Arctic Ocean increasing, including petrochemical exploration and fisheries, the United States has vital national interest in maintaining robust polar icebreaking capability to ensure year-round Coast Guard presence in these important waters,” the US Coast Guard writes

Although the Arctic is currently still a general backwater in trade, the region is expected to become a center of economic activity as the oceans continue to warm and the Arctic ice continues to melt. 

The region is stocked with valuable oil, gas, mineral, and fishery reserves. The U.S. estimates that a significant proportion of the Earth’s untapped petroleum  — including about 15% of the world’s remaining oil, up to 30% of its natural gas deposits, and about 20% of its liquefied natural gas  — are stored in the Arctic seabed.

Shipping throughout the Arctic will also become critically important. A proposed Russian Northern Sea Route could eventually rival the Suez Canal in economic importance. The route would connect shipping from Europe to Asia in 35 days, as opposed to the 48-day journey via the Suez canal. 

To capitalise on these changes, nations will need icebreakers to ensure that the Arctic waterways are open year round. And, for now, Russia is clearly far and away ahead of the US in capabilities. 

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