Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Paul Zukunft warned on Wednesday that the United States is woefully behind other nations like Russia and China in securing the arctic waterways critical to national defense and economic security.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Zukunft issued a warning that Russia has “made a strategic statement,” in the Arctic by saying “I’m here first, and everyone else, you’re going to be playing catch-up for a generation to catch up to me first.”

The Coast Guard has long been struggling to maintain operations with its tiny fleet of polar heavy icebreakers—only two exist, and one of them is being cannibalized for spare parts as we speak—as the Russians continue to pump more and more research and development into their very robust arctic sea going capability. The Russians already have over 40 operational icebreakers, with plans for potentially arming ice breaking frigates with missiles, essentially guaranteeing further militarization of the Arctic that the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Navy for that matter, are woefully unprepared for.

Zukunft noted that huge stores of untapped natural resources like natural gas and oil exist beneath the Arctic Sea, and as ice recedes as part of a global trend of rising temperatures and seawater, competitor nations like Russia and China are seeing the potential to secure those resources for themselves.

The mission of the U.S. Coast Guard’s polar icebreakers is to keep critical economic sea lanes open through the Arctic, as well as respond in the event of extreme search and rescue cases. The Coast Guard has for decades patrolled these waterways, playing a key role during the Cold War by providing security and freedom of movement for America’s arctic forces stationed in the far north. As their fleet of icebreakers have broken down over the course of time, they have not been replaced. Each subsequent Commandant, the most senior leader in the Coast Guard, has made the case for more funding for a problem they have long recognized as only getting worse with time, not better.

But it seems that since the Cold War ended, America’s attention in the Arctic drifted further afield, while the Russians never really intended to stop their activities in the region.

“They’ve got all their chess pieces on the board right now, and right now we’ve got a pawn and maybe a rook,” Zukunft said. “If you look at this Arctic game of chess, they’ve got us at checkmate right at the very beginning.”

Image courtesy of the US Coast Guard