As NEWSREP has covered a number of times in the past, the Russian military has continued to expand — uncontested — throughout the Arctic region. Moscow’s success in the frozen north can be attributed to three things, and the fact that Russia has more Arctic coastline than any nation on earth is certainly one of them, but it’s the other two that has really made the difference. Russia has the largest icebreaker fleet on the planet, and no one is even trying to compete with them up there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been shy about his Arctic aspirations — characterizing Russia’s expansion throughout the region as the future of Russia’s economy. While politicians in America have gotten lost in their political debate about the causes of climate change, Russia has taken the world as it is: using their huge fleet of icebreakers to help re-fit old military bases and establish new ones. As sea ice recedes, Russian icebreakers gain access to more and more territory, and because there’s no other force in the region that can contest their claims, Russia has rapidly become the dominant force at the top of the globe.
“The highways of the Arctic are icebreakers. Right now the Russians have superhighways and we have dirt roads with potholes,” said Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska back in 2017.
The United States, which boasts the largest and most capability-diverse military on the planet, is used to being able to dominate most regions of the world through sheer volume of force alone if need be — but the Arctic is one place America’s military might simply can’t reach. Russia’s ice breaking fleet boasts more than 40 ships, with 11 more under construction. Russia is also the only nation on the planet to field nuclear-powered icebreakers, marking a significant advantage over diesel-powered vessels that must return to ports for refueling at more frequent intervals.
Now when you start looking at the Russia navy, or if you start looking at why is Russia launching icebreaking corvettes — these are really warships that can also break ice at the same time, that can operate in the high latitudes, at a point in time where Russia is claiming a good portion of the Arctic Ocean … to say that, ‘this is ours,’” Former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft told reporters in December.
“This looks eerily familiar to what China is doing the East and South China Sea, what we could call access denial to all others … that you pay homage to Russia,” Zukunft said.
By comparison, the United States currently maintains one operational heavy icebreaker — and calling it “operational” is actually a pretty generous assessment. The Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star was first commissioned in 1976 and saw a refit in 2012 that was intended to keep it in service. Its sister ship, the Polar Sea, was commissioned at the same time but has already surrendered to the rigors of time — surviving now only as a parts donor for the aging, and ailing, Polar Star.
As the only vessel anywhere in America’s arsenal capable of sailing through the thick ice of the Arctic, it was recently tasked with executing a freedom of navigation voyage through its ice-strewn seas aimed at demonstrating an American presence the Russian-heavy region, but the Coast Guard leadership had to decline the operation because the vessel likely wouldn’t have survived the trip.
“I said, ‘Au contraire, it’s a 40-year-old ship. We’re cannibalizing parts off its sister ship just to keep this thing running, and I can’t guarantee you that it won’t have an [sic] catastrophic engineering casualty as it’s doing a freedom of navigation exercise, and now I’ve got to call on Russia to pull me out of harm’s way. So this is not the time to do it,'” Zukunft told the press recently. To be clear, that means the United States does not currently have any vessel that can clear a lane through the arctic without significant logistical support. That means the U.S. cannot offer much in the way of lasting resistance to any Russian operation above the Arctic Circle.
“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,” said Senator Sullivan, a Republican out of Alaska, last year. “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.”
The Coast Guard did, however, have a new heavy icebreaker on the books, with $750 million set aside for its construction. Currently, that program is on hold. Those funds are a part of a larger $5 billion package the Trump administration is attempting to secure for construction on the border wall President Trump used a part of his campaign platform. Often touting gangs like MS-13 and the specter of terrorism, Donald Trump has long contended that a wall stretching across America’s entire southern border would protect the nation from threats posed by those illegally crossing into the United States. However, it now appears that providing the immediate funding the president wants for the wall would require the cutting of the icebreaker program — effectively trading any capacity to counter Russian aggression in the north for the construction of a larger portion of Trump’s border wall in the south.
The Trump administration has stated that they would like to see the new icebreaker continue to be funded despite threatening to shut the government down if they don’t secure the $5 billion package that would cannibalize it.