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.

One of Russia’s four nuclear powered icebreakers. | Wikimedia Commons

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.”