As US tries to close ‘icebreaker gap’ with Russia, its only working icebreaker is making a rare trip north

The Coast Guard cutter Polar Star breaks ice in McMurdo Sound near Antarctica, January 10, 2018. US Coast Guard/Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen.
  • A fire in August left the US with one operational icebreaker, which the Coast Guard said in October would head to the Arctic this winter to protect “security in the region.”
  • The US is scrambling to expand that icebreaker fleet, as are a number of other countries, including Russia, who all see potential economic benefits in the increasingly accessible Arctic.
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As the US intensifies its focus on the Arctic, the gap between its icebreaker fleet and Russia’s has become a concern, underscored in recent weeks by the breakdown of one of the US’s two icebreakers as it sailed north.

In mid-August, a fire aboard US Coast Guard cutter Healy, a medium icebreaker that mainly supports scientific research, cut short its planned deployment to the Arctic, forcing it to return to homeport in Seattle.

That left the US with only one operational icebreaker, the 44-year-old Polar Star. Polar Star is the US’s only heavy icebreaker and is prone to breakdowns and other problems.

Polar Star typically makes an annual resupply run to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, but that was cancelled this year due to COVID-19. With Healy out of operation, the Polar Star is being dispatched to the Arctic “to help protect the nation’s maritime sovereignty and security in the region,” the Coast Guard said in late October.

It will be the first time a Polar Class icebreaker has gone to the Arctic for a non-scientific mission since 1994, and it comes as the US scrambles to rebuild its icebreaker fleet and its reach into the Arctic as climate change makes the region more accessible.

A ready, capable, and available fleet

A few days after the Coast Guard announced Polar Star’s trip north, Russian President Vladimir Putin touted the role of icebreakers in his government’s ambitious Arctic plans.

Russia has the world’s longest Arctic coastline and is betting on the nearby Northern Sea Route to support cargo shipping and natural-resource extraction. Icebreakers will be central to that activity.

“It is well-known that we have a unique icebreaker fleet that holds a leading position in the development and study of Arctic territories,” Putin said at the unveiling of a new icebreaker in St. Petersburg on November 3. “We must reaffirm this superiority constantly, every day. We must build up our positions, strengthen and update our fleet, introduce new advanced technologies in the construction of icebreakers and other vessels of that class.”

Russia has some 50 icebreakers, the most recent of which officials say is the world’s largest and most powerful, and more are on the way.

The US’s focus elsewhere for the past two decades has meant less emphasis on the Arctic, whereas Russia’s plans for the region have led to more investment in icebreakers and ice-hardened ships, according to Elizabeth Buchanan, a lecturer in strategic studies with Australia’s Deakin University.

“Russia has more [icebreakers] due to [its] sizeable area to patrol, and economic ventures … have meant they have kept a keen eye on the capability,” Buchanan told Insider.

The Coast Guard plans to build at least three more heavy icebreakers, and a contract has already been awarded to begin the design and construction of the first one, with a hoped-for arrival in 2024. In a memorandum this summer, President Donald Trump called for “a ready, capable, and available fleet” that is “fully deployable” by 2029.

Quantity vs. quality

China icebreaker Xuelong 2
The ice breaker Xuelong 2 at a wharf in Shanghai, China, July 11, 2020. Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The US is not the only one seeking more ships to operate in icy Arctic waters.

Canada’s navy recently received the first of six Arctic offshore patrol ships, which can break ice up to a yard thick and will allow the service to spend more time in the Arctic. Britain’s new polar research ship, designed to operate in ice up to a yard thick, also recently sailed for its sea trials. (Polar Star can break up to 21 feet of ice and Healy up to 4.5 feet.)

China now has two operational icebreakers, the newest of which recently completed its first Arctic expedition. China has made clear its ambitions for the high north, describing itself as a “near-Arctic power.” The US has dismissed that self-designation, but it adds to concerns about competition over the region and its resources.

Experts have said that policymakers shouldn’t focus too much on icebreakers for Arctic security.

“More capability doesn’t necessary translate into strategic intent. More so, it won’t change legal architecture or [the] fact that icebreakers don’t shift maritime borders,” Buchanan said, adding that changes in the amount of ice in the Arctic will also affect the utility of icebreakers.

Russia icebreaker Arktika
Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika departs St. Petersburg for sea trials, December 12, 2019. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

Tensions in the Arctic are low, and spillover from conflict somewhere else is seen as the most likely cause of a clash there.

“Engaging Russia and China elsewhere rather than focusing on specific capabilities in the Arctic, including icebreakers, will thus have salutary effects,” Paul Avey, a political-science professor at Virginia Tech, wrote last year.

But US officials remain worried about military activity in the Arctic, particularly Russia’s, and have pointed to Moscow’s plans to arm icebreakers as a sign of a broader trend.

Uncertainty about the future security environment in the Arctic means the US has “play the long game” with its new icebreakers, according to Shannon Jenkins, senior Arctic advisor at the Coast Guard’s Office of Arctic Policy.

“So we’re putting in what we call space, weight, and power to be able to plug and play for all kinds of mission support,” Jenkins said at an August event in response to a question about weapons on future icebreakers.

The Coast Guard’s next icebreaker “most likely won’t” be armed, “but it certainly will have the capacity and the ability to add in whatever we need to execute our” law-enforcement and military missions, Jenkins added.