Several US policy makers, Coast Guard and Navy representatives and academics were gathered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC on Wednesday to discuss the national security challenges and icebreaker operations in the Arctic region. The key message from several of the participants was that the U.S. needs to provide funding for building new icebreakers.
Both Senators Murkowski (Alaska) and King (Maine) underlined the importance of including the costs of a new icebreaker in the budget for 2017, which will be released on February 9, 2016. President Obama made an urgent call for the construction of a new Coast Guard icebreaker by 2020 when he made a visit to Alaska in the beginning of September 2015.
The senators, who have formed an Arctic Caucus in the Senate, welcomed the announcement, but say it means very little without the appropriate funding.
US lagging behind other Arctic nations
Currently, the US only operates one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is nearly 40 years old. Without refurbishing, the Polar Star is likely to go out of function around 2020-22.
Ronald O’Rourke from the Congressional Research Service pointed out that even with the schedule announced by President Obama, the U.S. will be without an icebreaker for 5-6 years. Russia on the other hand has 41 icebreakers, and is planning to build 14 more. This is supplemented by an increased military presence in the region.
The Arctic is Russia’s future resource base and has a great strategic significance for the country, said Heather Conley who is the director of the Europe Program at CSIS.
Admiral Mark Ferguson, the Commander of US Naval Forces Europe, said at this event that Russia is trying to break out from its economic constraints and to remake the current security order in the world. Although the Russian government has shown great willingness to cooperate in the region, the U.S. needs to be aware of their strategic goals. Acquiring icebreakers is an important part of accessing the Arctic and protecting U.S. national security interests in the region.
Increased economic activity
With the opening of the Arctic region, new resources and shipping routes have become available. The increased economic activity raises a need for protection of the environment and safety operations in a harsh environment. The U.S. Coast Guard needs to be ready for possible oil spill responses, as well as search and rescue operations now that commercial ships are entering the region. Such operations will not be possible without functioning icebreaking vessels.
“National security is never cheap”
Despite these pressing needs, the process of building new icebreakers has been slow, much due to high costs. Acquiring a heavy icebreaker is not cheap. The cost of building one is roughly $1 billion, and with decreasing funds for the U.S. Coast Guard Acquisition Account, that becomes even more problematic. Regardless, the Coast Guard on Wednesday released a draft data package that includes a program schedule and requirements for the planned icebreaker. Senator Murkowski underlined that “national security is never cheap,” and more specifically that for those living in the North, icebreakers are an integral part of the infrastructure.