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.”