With Russia’s military rapidly expanding its Arctic footprint and capabilities, it has become clear that the United States has fallen far behind the competition in terms of both security and economic positioning in the quickly opening waterways of the frigid north. America’s lone heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, has grown so old that it can hardly complete a voyage without needing repairs midway through. Meanwhile, Russia’s huge fleet of icebreakers includes the world’s only nuclear-powered ice vessels. This is troubling given that the Arctic could become among the most important diplomatic, economic, and militarily strategic regions of the world in the 21st century.

The U.S. may have the most powerful military on the planet, but above the Arctic Circle, Russia runs the show. However, that may soon change as yet another international competitor looks to expand their capabilities in the region: China.

China, not Russia, poses the most pressing threat to American interests abroad. This is due in large part to the nation’s economic initiatives. These serve the dual purpose of restructuring the global economic infrastructure to place China (rather than the U.S.) at the center of the global trade system, and securing fiscal leverage over developing nations that may struggle to repay their loans. As the U.S. steps back from global leadership roles, China has been eager to absorb the diplomatic power left behind in that vacuum. In most realms of competition, America maintains the high ground—boasting the more powerful military, a greater number of allies, and truly global capabilities—but the Arctic is one region where China can secure an early lead over America.

As the U.S. drags its feet toward fielding a single, conventionally powered replacement for the ailing Polar Star, China has begun developing an icebreaker of their own, but they intend to make theirs nuclear powered. That would make China only the second nation on the planet to boast a nuclear-powered icebreaker, granting them not only an advantage over the U.S. in the Arctic, but also helping them take another extremely important step toward fielding a truly “blue-water” Navy by way of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

U.S. Coast Guard scuba divers work to repair a leak in the shaft seal of the Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star, January 2019. U.S. Coast Guard.

“This will now give the Chinese the ability to go anywhere at any time. The size of the icebreaker, if indeed reports are accurate, means China will have a capability that will rival Russia’s icebreakers,” explained Rob Huebert, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and a senior research fellow with the Center for Military and Strategic Studies.

China’s forthcoming icebreaker will be just shy of 500 feet long and 90 feet wide, displacing more than 30,000 tons, and will be capable of traveling at speeds of up to 11.5 knots.

Although China has one operational aircraft carrier, one undergoing sea trials, and another in production, all of these carriers still rely on old-fashioned fuel. That dramatically limits their force-projection capabilities, forcing the carriers to remain within commuting distance of friendly ports to refuel. Nuclear carriers, on the other hand, can travel anywhere in the world without concerns about refueling mid-voyage, enabling far greater operational capabilities. America’s massive fleet of supercarriers (the largest in the world) is widely seen as the nation’s most formidable means of force projection.

Although the nuclear reactors being contracted for China’s icebreaking vessel aren’t quite as large as one might expect on a carrier, the development of these reactors will not only grant China a massive leg up in Arctic capabilities, it will also serve as an integral step toward fielding nuclear-powered carriers capable of global operations. By developing this program first for an icebreaker, China has cleverly closed a bit of the technological capability gap with the Americans while increasing their advantage in the Arctic Circle.

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