In recent years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed a large emphasis on expanding the Russian presence throughout the oft-ignored Arctic. As sea ice continues to melt, new shipping lanes and natural resources, and with them, economic opportunities may help to reinvigorate Russia’s declining economy, thanks to the nation’s massive fleet of more than 40 sizable icebreakers. Recently, China began development of its own nuclear-powered icebreaker, making it only the second nation on Earth (behind Russia) with such a capability. In fact, China’s new icebreaker will be the nation’s first-ever surface vessel to carry such a power plant. These are the economic and military implications of fielding an Arctic presence, despite China having no Arctic borders whatsoever.

Here in the United States, where many are inclined to dismiss long-term concerns about Arctic security in favor of addressing equally pressing short-term threats, America’s Arctic capabilities have been in steady decline. The nation’s fleet of three icebreakers eventually fell to two, as one became nothing but a parts donor to keep America’s only heavy icebreaker afloat. That heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, has proven to be rather unreliable, with its most recent voyage beset by mechanical failures. At one point, divers even had to enter the frigid waters beneath the vessel to conduct repairs to get the mission back underway.

US finally set to receive a new heavy icebreaker as Russia and China extend their lead in the Arctic
US Coast Guard scuba divers work to repair a leak in the shaft seal of the Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star, January 2019. (US Coast Guard photo)

Now, however, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have officially awarded the contract for America’s next generation heavy icebreaker to shipbuilder VT Halter Marine. The initial award is for $750 million, with as much as $1.9 billion in it for VT Halter if Congress approves an award for two additional vessels and the builder meets a series of performance incentive requirements.

“Against the backdrop of great power competition, the Polar Security Cutter is key to our nation’s presence in the polar regions,” said Adm. Karl L. Schultz, Commandant of the Coast Guard.

“With the strong support of both the Trump administration and the United States Congress, this contract award marks an important step towards building the nation’s full complement of six polar icebreakers to meet the unique mission demands that have emerged from increased commerce, tourism, research, and international activities in the Arctic and Antarctic,” according to Admiral Schultz.

The new vessel will not be nuclear-powered like Russia’s largest icebreakers or China’s forthcoming platform, but will boast a wide array of capabilities which America’s existing icebreaker lacks. Most importantly, it will offer a new level of reliability, enabling Arctic missions that are currently dismissed over concerns the Polar Star could get stuck or break down. Currently, if it were to fail and the onboard crew were unable to effect repairs, the Coast Guard would have no choice but to request international help, likely from Russian ice-breaking vessels.

“Working with our industry partners, the team identified approximately $300 million in cost avoidances and accelerated the schedule for delivery of this capability to the nation by almost three years,” said James Geurts, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition.

“This reflects the urgency in which we are operating to ensure we deliver capabilities necessary to support the U.S. Coast Guard and the nation’s missions in the polar regions.”