Arming Icebreakers

By Andreas Kuersten


Icebreakers ply polar waters, smashing open sea lanes with their heavily armored bows.  Yet in addition to being equipped to do battle with the elements, should they be outfitted to take on enemy forces?  Admiral Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), believes that they should.  “We need to look differently … at what an icebreaker does,” he said at a recent hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee, “We need to reserve space, weight, and power if we need to strap a cruise missile package on it.”

However, adding a military dimension to U.S. icebreaker operations entails great cost and a diversion of resources from the other important missions that these vessels take on, and must be justified.  In determining whether it is, there are three important considerations: (1) the threat environment necessitating such action; (2) the unique role armed icebreakers are needed to fill; and (3) the administrative challenges inherent in the procurement and operation of these ships.

The proposition for armed icebreakers rests on a certain appreciation of Arctic geopolitics.  Admiral Zukunft believes that, as the Arctic melts, U.S. interests and claims will be contested, and has called out Russia and China specifically as likely challengers.  A large number of pundits and policymakers are similarly of the opinion that the opening Arctic will be the next great confrontation point between great powers as they vie for territory and resources.  Russia, in particular, is consistently mentioned as a source of concern.  Representative Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md) has expressed his fear that, “[i]f [they] remain unchecked, the Russians will extend their sphere of influence to over 5 million square miles of Arctic ice and water.”  In turn, Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Ca) has put forth that “[t]he Cold War might be over, but the U.S. and Russia are once again in direct competition in the race to gain access to the Arctic and project force from the polar region.”

This view of the Arctic, however,  is hardly supported by the reality of northern relations.  The Arctic is not the Wild West.  Well established institutions like the Arctic Council, along with newer ones like the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, function as avenues by which Arctic states realize their broad common interests in the region, and as forums where these states reinforce, by way of statements and practice, their commitment to international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes.  In fact, since the waning years of the Cold War, the region has been a place of exceptional cooperation between ostensibly hostile powers—first the United States and the Soviet Union, now the United States and Russia.

Continue to full article . . .

Picture: DanNav (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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