U.S. Steps Up Arctic Engagement as Congress Authorizes Three Additional Polar Icebreakers

Coast Guard Cutter Healy patrols the Arctic Ocean (Source: U.S. Coast Guard/ Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuys)

In a bipartisan effort the U.S. Congress has passed legislation that will substantially upgrade the Coast Guard’s capabilities, including in the Arctic with three additional Polar Security Cutters.

The U.S. Congress has paved the way for the United States Coast Guard to acquire three additional Polar icebreakers. As part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2021 the both chambers of Congress authorized three additional Polar Security Cutters.

Senators from Alaska as well as the state of Washington, the home port of USCG icebreakers, had worked together in a bipartisan effort to include the authorization in the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act, part of the NDAA.

Andrew Holland, Chief Operating Officer of the American Security Project,
Keep Arctic peaceful: Andrew Holland is the Chief Operating Officer of the American Security Project. Photo: The American Security Project.
Andrew Holland Chief Operating Office of the American Security Project.

“The bill’s passage means that there is strong support in Congress for increasing the American Arctic presence. The Coast Guard has indicated that it understands the need to increase its presence in the Alaskan Arctic, and this will support that,” explains Andrew Holland Chief Operating Office of the American Security Project.

U.S. steps up Arctic engagement 

For the past decade the U.S. has relied on just two large icebreakers, one constructed in the 1970s and close to retirement and one commissioned in the 1990s. Both have been plagued by mechanical and reliability issues, including engine room fires necessitating major repairs

After more than a decade of discussion the USCG received authorization and sufficient funding in 2019 to procure the first in what it hopes will be a fleet of up to six new icebreakers. Construction on the first Polar Security Cutter is expected to begin in 2021 with a planned launch by 2024.

The Coast Guard Reauthorization includes increased funding for the USCG in the amount of $11.9 billion which will be used for Polar Security Cutters and other vessels and infrastructure.

The bill provides resources necessary for the construction of new cutters, said the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in a press release. 

“This increase will allow the U.S. Coast Guard to procure new Polar Security Cutters to replace the one remaining heavy icebreaker, acquire four additional Fast Response Cutters, and address the nearly $2 billion backlog of its shore infrastructure and facility maintenance needs,” the Committee confirmed.

The highways of the Arctic are paved by icebreakers.
U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska)

And while the bill does not specifically provide funding for all three new icebreakers, it does allocate an additional $135m for the fiscal year 2020 and $610m for fiscal year 2021 to go towards the procurement of Polar Security Cutters.

“This is a multi-year authorization, and you shouldn’t expect to see funding for all of these in this year’s spending bill. They will be purchased with funds in future years,” confirms Holland.  

A bipartisan effort

The bill’s passage was applauded by Alaskan Senators Murkowski and Sullivan. “The authorization of additional Polar Security Cutters in the final NDAA is significant and a sign that we are moving in the right direction,” confirms Murkowski

Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK-R), senior Senator from Alaska, has been instrumental in obtaining icebreaker funding (Credit: Lingjing Bao).
Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK-R), senior Senator from Alaska, has been instrumental in obtaining icebreaker funding. (Credit: Lingjing Bao)
Lisa Murkowski.

Likewise her colleague Sullivan stated that “the highways of the Arctic are paved by icebreakers, and the authorization of Polar Class icebreakers in this year’s NDAA will put America in a much better position to operate in the region and protect our national security and economic interests.”

Similarly Senator Cantwell of Washington, where three of the icebreakers will be based in the port of Seattle, said: “there is a race on for the Arctic passageway, and we need to be ready.”

Funding for additional Arctic initiatives

The NDAA also includes more than $150m in funding for military construction in Alaska as well as the establishment of a new regional Department of Defense (DOD) Arctic Center. It will be the first regional DOD center in the Arctic and will focus on defense strategy objectives and Arctic policy priorities.

Additional funds in the amount of $46m were authorized for Arctic communications capabilities. Traditional satellite-based communications is limited in Northern latitudes and Arctic states have been working on developing and deploying upgraded systems to ensure stable communications in the Polar region.

This news comes just weeks after Russia successfully tested a new hypersonic missile in the Arctic’s Barents Sea. The NDAA calls for the modernization of the North Warning System, a string of 47 long- and short-range radar stations which provide electronic observation and surveillance capabilities against cruise missiles launched over the Polar region.