It’s no secret that the United States employs the most powerful military in the world, but often, that understanding is mistaken to mean America enjoys tactical and strategic superiority in every environment it finds itself contested. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, and nowhere is that more prevalent than amongst the thinning ice sheets of the Arctic.

“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 last year. The capability gap presented by Russia’s unchallenged supremacy in the North isn’t limited to shipping lanes, however, and there’s a whole lot more at stake than ice.

According to some expert analysis, as much as a full twenty-five percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and oil reserves lay in wait beneath the Arctic region – making Russia’s growing claims of sovereignty in the Arctic, extending hundreds of thousands of square miles and encompassing the North Pole now, an important strategic issue for the future of not only warfare, but commerce. As shipping lanes in the region grow, that claimed sovereignty will prove even more profitable both economically and diplomatically, if left unchallenged.

Climate change brings in more favorable conditions and improves the economic potential of this region,” Putin has said. “Today, Russia’s GDP is the result of the economic activity of this region.”

While America’s massive Navy boasts the most technologically advanced and powerful warships ever to hit the waves, it doesn’t actually have any icebreakers of its own. Instead, the task of maintaining America’s fleet of icebreakers falls to the Coast Guard. Just how big is that fleet, you may ask? Well, it’s three ships… but one is used primarily for scientific research and the other is in dry dock, having its parts cannibalized to keep the other two afloat, so it may be more appropriate to say one.

Russia, on the other hand, has more classes of operational icebreakers than the United States has ships, including at least four nuclear powered vessels (of which the United States has zero). With more than forty total icebreakers in their northern fleet, the Russian Navy has already secured its place as the most formidable Arctic presence on the planet – and with at least 11 more under construction, that lead won’t be diminishing any time soon.

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.”

Russia is the only nation on the planet with nuclear powered icebreakers. (WikiMedia Commons)

America, of course, can rely on its allies for support, but even most other NATO nations boast fleets of only eight or so outdated platforms.  Further, Russia has already begun arming their ice breaking vessels – whereas the United States only recently announced plans to arm their forthcoming icebreaker, expected to take to the seas in 2023.

The Polar Star, America’s largest and only functional heavy icebreaker, is more than 160 feet shorter than Russia’s largest icebreaker. It also operates using diesel electric motors, as compared to Russia’s nuclear powered vessels. (WikiMedia Commons)

Not convinced that Russia’s fleet of icebreakers has permitted Putin’s military to establish a foothold North of the United States? Let’s take a moment then, to compare military assets in place above the arctic circle. To date, Russia boasts six established military bases, 16 deepwater ports, 13 air strips, and a number of S-400 long-range surface to air missile systems throughout the region intended to defend those assets.

The United States, on the other hand, currently has no sizeable permanent military presence in the Arctic whatsoever. Further, the United States’ primarily domestic missile defense system, the GMD (Ground-based Midcourse Defense) System, is designed to intercept missiles traveling across the globe longitudinally, meaning missiles approaching from the Arctic would be far more difficult to stop before making landfall.

This ever growing capability gap could be attributed to a number of issues and circumstances, including Russia’s historic presence in the Arctic, but what has really limited America’s ability to keep up with Russia’s aggressive expansion in the North has been domestic politics and budgetary constraints. The issue of climate change has become a politically polarizing one, making discussion and debate about growing America’s presence among the thawing ice more complex than simply maintaining an effective military and strategic deterrent.

On the Right, some misconstrue the argument about increasing America’s presence in the Arctic at a commensurate rate to the ice melting as a means to advance a liberal climate agenda, but they’re not the only ones to blame for hampering America’s ice breaking progress. On the Left, the issue of climate change also tends to leave politicians operating with political blinders on. President Obama, for instance, did place an emphasis on the Arctic – but primarily from an environmental standpoint.

With one party unwilling to acknowledge the growing threat, and the other only focusing on a specific aspect of it, the issue of Russian expansion has, for the most part, fallen to the wayside. That is not, however, for lack of trying from defense officials, who have long lamented America’s anemic Northern presence.

Russian soldiers drive Arctic military vehicles along Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia, on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. (AP Photo)

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,’” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft told reporters in December.

As the US lags behind, China looks to join Russia in the Arctic with a nuclear-powered icebreaker

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“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.

Politics aren’t the only problem, however. Cost is also a huge factor. Although America devotes more money to defense than any other nation on the planet, it also maintains a larger military footprint than its competitors. The U.S. not only conducts combat operations in multiple theaters around the globe, it also serves as a stabilizing presence in many other contested areas. With a single new icebreaker expected to cost in the neighborhood of a billion dollars, the Coast Guard simply hasn’t had the room in its budget to expand its icebreaking presence, and the Pentagon hasn’t felt the need to divert much funding away from ongoing combat operations into such a project.

Unfortunately, I think the thing that will get people serious about the need to have a national icebreaking fleet is going to be a disaster and loss of life…” said retired Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, chairman of the Arctic Security Working Group at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute.

“It will be a cruise ship that becomes icebound and sinks, or some destination shipping that sinks and results in loss of life and environmental disaster. Then we will be in a ‘who shot John’ mode at that point.”


Feature image courtesy of the Department of Defense