U.S. Renews Warning Against China in Arctic, Releases New Details on Icebreaker

Polar Security Cutter
Computer rendering of the new Polar Security Cutter icebreaker. (Source: VT Halter)

Just days after Secretary of State Pompeo warned about Russia’s and China’s activity in the Arctic during the Arctic Council meeting, U.S. military officials renewed comments about security threats in the region. The U.S. Coast Guard aims to respond to those challenges with a fleet of new icebreakers.


U.S. officials continue a pattern of strong rhetoric aimed against Russian and Chinese ambitions in the Arctic. In new testimony in front of a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, military leaders explained that the security environment in the region has changed. “The Arctic is the first line of defense,” explained Air Force General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, head of the U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command.

The region is being transformed from a peaceful sanctuary to a new theater of engagement. “The Arctic is becoming the first line of defense for North America and our potential adversaries want to bring the fight to us in North America,” O’Shaughnessy warned. U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo similarly criticized China for its hidden and aggressive agenda in the Arctic.

In light of this changing environment the U.S. Coast Guard plans to operate up to six new icebreakers – three heavy and three medium – by the end of the coming decade. It revealed new details about its first new heavy icebreaker in 40 years, to be built by VT Halter. The vessel’s design will be based on the German icebreaker Polarstern II and will be among the most powerful non-nuclear icebreakers in the world.

U.S. operating blind in Arctic

The new testimony in front of lawmakers follows on the heels of similar remarks by U.S. military leadership over the past few months. O’Shaughnessy explained that the U.S. needs to quickly reframe how it views the Arctic and how it fits into its homeland defense strategy. The region is no longer a sanctuary, but is becoming an area for power and economic competition, the general continued. He further highlighted Russia’s increasing military presence – including building three new military bases and refurbishing others including plans to equip them with long-range cruise missiles – and China’s economic interests. “We’re not looking for conflict in the Arctic, but we must be prepared to operate in that space,” he concluded.

Currently the U.S. only operates one 43- year old heavy icebreaker, compared to Russia’s fleet of nuclear and conventional icebreakers. But the U.S.’ lack of Arctic capabilities extends much further than icebreakers alone. The country has little understanding about how climate change is altering the region’s weather patterns, in turn affecting operational capabilities. “The current amount of observations that we have in the Arctic are similar to the amount of observations we had over the U.S. and in the Atlantic during WWI,” explains Rear Adm. John Okon, commander of the U.S. Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.

Accurately predicting climatic patterns and weather is crucial for the safe navigation of surface vessels, submarines and aircraft, especially in the challenging waters of the High North. The U.S.’ capabilities in that regard are hampered by the fact that traditional sensors and other observation equipment don’t work in the region’s harsh climate. Russia on the other hand has developed drones capable of operating the Arctic’s extreme temperatures, which carry special batteries and guidance systems suitable for temperatures below -60C. The U.S. is currently “operating in the blind,” Okun concluded.

New Icebreaker based on German Design

The design of the U.S. Coast Guard’s new Polar Security Cutter icebreaker will be based on the German Polarstern II icebreaker, officials revealed last week. It will make use of a Finnish propulsion design and use diesel-electric propulsion producing 45,200 horsepowers to move the 37,000 ton vessel.

In comparison, Russia’s latest and largest class of nuclear icebreakers weighs in at 33,450 tons and is powered by 81,000 horsepower. In terms of weight and size – it measures 140 meters in length and 27 meters across – the new U.S. icebreaker will be among the largest operational icebreakers. It will be designated as a Polar Class II icebreaker, one category below Russia’s most powerful icebreakers. This gives it the ability to break through 1.5 meters of ice at 3-5 knots continuously and in excess of 3 meters through ramming. This makes it less powerful than the Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star that it will replace. This type of vessel was capable of breaking through ice up to 1.8 meters thick continuously and 6.4 meters through ramming.

Climate change means less ice

However, in light of rapidly melting ice throughout the Arctic thick multi-year ice will become increasingly rare and thus the vessel’s design places more emphasis on endurance and the ability to perform well in both ice and open water. The vessel combines fixed and steerable propulsion, which gives it excellent seakeeping capabilities but still allow for maximum maneuverability in icy waters. Propulsion will come from three Caterpillar diesel-electric motors and the ship can operate independently for up to 90 days.

VT Halter, the shipyard that won the Coast Guard’s contract to build the new icebreaker describes how it arrived at the winning design. “We picked the most modern icebreaker that was on the market, soon to be production-level design that roughly met the Coast Guard’s requirements, and we took it and modified it,” Baczkowski said.

Part of this modification is a new type of contoured hull shape. Rather than the traditional way of breaking ice with the icebreaker moving on top of the ice and crushing it, this hull will cut through the ice and then move it away from the ship, thus protecting the propellers and scientific instrumentation.

Currently the U.S. Coast Guard has not been allocated sufficient funding for the second and third heavy icebreakers, but hopes to move forward with those orders by 2021.

While the new Polar Security Cutter represents a step forward, it will not significantly add to the U.S.’ capabilities as the Polar Star will be decommissioned at the same time. Only with the second and third icebreakers, planned for delivery in 2025 and 2027, will the U.S. be able to increase its presence in the Arctic.