President Trump, in a recent memo, asked executive departments to report back by early August on how they can develop a U.S. “fleet” of icebreaking ships to navigate the frozen Arctic and Antarctic — marking yet another step in the administration’s efforts to strengthen U.S. influence in the region as it faces challenges from Russia and China.
Specifically, the Trump memo ordered the State Department, Defense Department, Commerce Department and Office of Management and Budget to review how the U.S. could acquire “at least three heavy polar-class security cutters,” better known as icebreakers.
The U.S. currently lags behind Russia in the icebreakers department, and sees this deficit as a problem. Energy resources, security concerns and more are driving the push to catch up.
The memo, which also considered using smaller icebreakers to support national security priorities like “unmanned aviation” and “space systems,” even flicked at the possibility of a more militarized presence: “This assessment shall also evaluate defensive armament adequate to defend against threats by near-peer competitors and the potential for nuclear-powered propulsion.”
Below is a look at three major areas where the U.S. faces challenges in the Arctic, and what the Trump administration has done about them.
The terminology in the memo speaking of a “fleet” of icebreakers is perhaps a bit misleading — the U.S. currently only has one heavy icebreaker that is used for missions in both the Arctic and Antarctic. That icebreaker, the USCG Polar Star, is more than 40 years old. In addition, the Coast Guard maintains the medium icebreaker, the USCG Healy. Other icebreakers in the U.S. are privately owned.
Russia, meanwhile, has dozens of icebreakers, including several that are nuclear powered, multiple large icebreakers and what can legitimately be called a fleet of medium icebreakers. China has a handful of medium icebreakers and is angling for new ones as well.
“We really don’t have the ability to project the presence we need to project in both the Arctic and the Antarctic,” Vice Adm. Scott Buschman, the Coast Guard’s deputy commandant for operations, told Fox News of U.S. capabilities with just the Polar Star and the Healy. Buschman’s rank is the equivalent of a three-star general.
“We do need additional polar icebreakers to do what we need to do both in the Antarctic and the Arctic at the high latitudes. In the past they used the term… ‘six, three, one.’ We need six icebreakers, at least three of which are heavy icebreakers. And we need one now.”
Nick Solheim, the founder of the Wallace Institute for Arctic Security, told Fox News that although the U.S. has little Arctic territory compared with Russia, and therefore it makes sense why Russia would have more icebreakers, America’s capabilities are woefully insufficient.
“There was an instance a couple of years back where an Alaskan city contracted a Russian icebreaker to deliver fuel and supplies so the city could continue running through the winter,” he said. “Because we were not able to get there. That’s alarming when you have to, as a city in the United States, as an American citizen with the same rights as every other American citizen, have to… charge a foreign country with supplying your own city. That’s absolutely insane.”
The Anchorage Daily News reported in 2011 that a Russian icebreaker named the Renada was contracted to deliver fuel to Nome, Alaska, as the Polar Star was undergoing repairs in its homeport of Seattle and the Healy, which was near Nome at the time, was unable to break through the thick ice separating land from sea.
Buschman warned that the U.S. needs to keep pace with its rivals in order to maintain all its responsibilities and guard its interests in the Arctic.
“There is a lot more interest by countries in the Arctic. Certainly by Russia. Certainly by China. They’re also increasing their ability to build out their fleet and operate in the Arctic,” he said. “At the current pace, China’s got the potential to have more icebreaking capacity than the United States by 2025.”
It’s not just in numbers of ships that China is attempting to overtake the United States, with regard to the Arctic. China, in the model of its Belt and Road Initiative, is attempting to set up a “Polar Silk Road.” With climate change making shipping lanes through the Arctic more plausible, China sees an opportunity to dominate what is likely to be a stepped-up level of Arctic commerce by establishing diplomatic and economic relationships with Arctic countries.
Solheim notes China’s increased activity on the Arctic Council, an international organization of Arctic countries, which China is not technically a member of, and its efforts to court individual members of the council as well. China in the last decade, for example, signed a free trade agreement with Iceland. It’s also tried to use its Confucious Institutes — Chinese government-programs that exist in American universities as well — to spread propaganda in Arctic countries.
China also tried to build airports in the Danish territory of Greenland before the U.S. put the brakes on that enterprise, and in May gained majority control of a Norwegian airline through several degrees of corporations owning other corporations.