For years now, debate has raged within American domestic politics about climate change and its causes, but elsewhere in the world, America’s competitors aren’t busying themselves with debating why Arctic ice is melting, they’re just taking advantage of the new strategic and economic opportunities presented by the change.
Vladimir Putin said in March,
Not a single [other] country in the world has a nuclear icebreaker fleet. The Soviet Union used to have it, Russia has it, and we have plans to develop a powerful new-generation icebreaker fleet. We won’t threaten anybody, but, using our advantages, of a territorial nature in this case, we will ensure the security of Russia and its citizens. In this sense, the Arctic region is extremely important for Russia.”
While America sits at the top of the heap when it comes to defense spending, Russia and China have both made significant strides in recent years, closing the gap considerably in some regards, and even surpassing American capabilities in several others. One of the realms America finds itself lagging behind in is in the militarization of the Arctic, an endeavor Russia has nearly monopolized in recent years. With more than $300 billion invested in current or future arctic infrastructure development and the opening or re-opening of multiple military installations throughout the region, Russia is poised to dominate this newly opening region of the globe, and potentially, up to a quarter of the planet’s oil and mineral resources that are currently secure deep beneath the receding ice. Russia’s newest facility, Arkticheskiy Trilistnik, or Arctic Trefoil, serves as just another asset in Russia’s arctic endeavor, and serves as a start reminder of how far behind the United States has fallen in this new realm.
Nowhere is this capability gap more evident than when comparing fleets of icebreakers. The United States currently employs only three icebreakers, though age, operational obligations and maintenance issues really mean there’s only one operational icebreaker in the American stable, manned and operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Russia, however, already has four nuclear-powered icebreakers (of which the United States has none), around 40 total ice breaking vessels, and at least 11 more currently in production. Some leaders within the United States have attempted to draw attention to this growing disadvantage to little avail. Republican Senator out of Alaska Dan Sullivan has repeatedly attempted to garner more attention to the cause, not only because of the economic implications, but due to concerns about national security as well.
Senator Sullivan said last year.
The United States continues to be late to the game in the Arctic, as evidenced most clearly by our meager existing fleet of Coast Guard icebreakers capable of operating in this important region. With rapidly increasing commercial activity and sea traffic in the Arctic and Russia’s alarming military build-up, America can no longer afford to neglect this area of the globe.”
Unfortunately, as the United States continues to drag its feet when it comes to leveraging the arctic, another global competitor has been jockeying for position. China, who has been enjoying increasingly positive relations with Russia in recent years, also has big plans for the arctic, announcing plans for a “Polar Silk Road” earlier this year. China claimed plans to develop infrastructure throughout the arctic that would enable commercial shipping of goods, as well as improving their stake in the resource rich environment.
This week, China announced plans to begin development on the nation’s first nuclear powered icebreaker — which would not only give China a significant advantage over the United States (who are working to develop a new heavy icebreaker that will likely not have nuclear power), but would also serve as a huge step toward China’s long term goal of establishing a blue-water Navy.
Currently, even China’s Type 001 aircraft carrier, the first to be developed and built domestically within the Chinese state, relies on traditional diesel power plants, forcing their ships to operate relatively close to allied ports for refueling. Building a nuclear-powered icebreaker would not only give China a leg up in the Arctic, is would also represent a shift in Chinese naval capability, allowing them to utilize the nuclear program developed for their icebreaker in other surface combatant ships like new carriers.
This new nuclear icebreaker would grow China’s fleet of these specialized ships to just three, which is technically on par with America’s in number, though a nuclear vessel would undoubtedly offer significantly more capability than America’s sole functioning (diesel) heavy breaker. Russia has already set the precedent for arming icebreakers, and it’s likely that China (and the United States) will follow suit — though China’s may be armed with a unique weapons platform not yet seen in any nation’s Navy: a rail gun. According to U.S. intelligence reports, China will have functional rail guns on their Navy ships by 2025 — rail guns are electromagnetic weapons systems that can propel projectiles at speeds in excess of Mach 7, offering unparalleled kinetic force upon impact. This type of weapon requires a massive amount of electrical power — something that will be easy to accomplish in a nuclear-powered vessel.
Defense officials and politicians alike have been calling on the U.S. defense apparatus to take the growing threat looming in the arctic seriously as Russia has swept across the region, now, with China poised to join them, the U.S. may find that keeping its sights set squarely in the Middle East may result in falling behind the curve in yet another theater of modern warfare.
Featured image: Nuclear icebreaker “Yamal” on its way to the North Pole, carrying 100 tourists. | By Wofratz [CC BY-SA 2.5], from Wikimedia Commons; modified by the author