By Andreas Kuersten
America is finally taking steps to fix its woeful shortage of icebreakers, the armor-bowed vessels that enable year-round presence and passage through the ever-more-important Arctic region. But U.S. officials increasingly think and talk about these ships as defense assets, and that’s not in our best interest.
It’s common among those who concern themselves with Arctic policy to talk about an “icebreaker gap.” In past years, this has generally referred to the difference between the number of such ships operated by the U.S. Coast Guard versus the number needed to adequately attend to the American Arctic. This gap is real. Currently, the service operates one medium and one heavy icebreaker (a second has been dockbound for more than half a decade). USCG studies, however, say three of each would be needed to adequately provide emergency response and law enforcement services and maintain supply lines.
Though it is worth noting that the service’s vice commandant has put forth that two heavy icebreakers would suffice, no one disputes that the USCG is presently ill-equipped to respond to emergent situations, whether they involve a supply or health emergency in an Arctic community, an environmental or cruise ship disaster, or a sharp uptick in northern shipping. Thankfully, both the President and members of Congress have been persuaded to add $1 billion for a new heavy icebreaker to a proposed bipartisan funding bill. The USCG acquisition corps will also get help from their more-experienced colleagues at the Navy.
Recent icebreaker enthusiasm, however, has become infused with problematic motivations, ones that risk substantial waste and even national security concessions once any new vessel comes into service. This can be seen in a newly popular definition of the “icebreaker gap”: the observation that America’s tiny fleet is dwarfed by that of Russia, which already has more than 40 icebreakers and plans to add more.
Picture: Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1754517) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons