Arming IceBreakers: U.S. vs Russia in the Arctic
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by Caleb Larson
In April of 2019, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard awarded VT Halter Marine Inc. a $745.9 million to build the Coast Guard’s new Polar Security Cutter (PSC), actually a large ice breaker. Though the contract is for a single large ice breaker, it could be expanded to include two additional PSCs, bringing the total number of new breakers to three.
Although several new American ice breakers are not exactly breaking news, the fact that these new ships might be armed, is.
Armed & Dangerous
It’s been over half a century since American ice breakers were armed. The Wind-class icebreakers of World War II vintage were armed with a variety of deck guns and heavy machine guns. Several even served with the Soviet Union thanks to the American-lead Lend-Lease Act and were also armed by the Soviet Navy. However, these deck guns were removed during the 1960s once they were transferred from U.S. Navy command to the Coast Guard.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, peace has more or less reigned in the Arctic. Given the tranquil environment, the United States Coast Guard icebreaker fleet has dwindled precipitously—today represented by just a single heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, and one medium ice breaker, the USCGC Healy. A third ice breaker, the USCGC Polar Sea has been in inactive commission since the ship suffered a breakdown in 2010.
The U.S. icebreaker fleet is lacking, making the Polar Security Cutter initiative an absolute must for the Coast Guard—especially considering the rivalry that is quite literally heating up in the far north.
A comment by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underlined just how important the Arctic region is becoming, and not just for countries that consider themselves Arctic States. “Beijing claims to be a ‘near-Arctic state,’ yet the shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles. There are only Arctic States and Non-Arctic States,” Pompeo explained. “No third category exists, and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.”
It’s not just China who’s showing an interest in the Arctic either. In 2007, Russia planted a flag on the Arctic floor near the North Pole. The Russian icebreaker fleet easily dwarfs the American fleet too—around forty ships, with nearly another dozen either currently under construction or budgeted for, some of which are nuclear powered.
The Coast Guard’s 2019 Arctic Strategic Outlook paper summarized why arming CG icebreakers is so important:
“Increased accessibility and activity will create more demand for Coast Guard services in the Arctic maritime domain. While long-term trends point to a more consistently navigable and competitive region, other environmental and economic factors make it difficult to predict the scope and pace of change. Near-term variability in the physical environment exposes mariners and communities to unpredictable levels of risk. As the region attracts increasing attention from both partner and competitor states, America’s economic and security interests will become even more closely tied to the Arctic.”
Will the Coast Guard’s newest ice breakers be armed in the near future? It’s too early to tell—but it seems increasingly likely. It may be time for the Coast Guard to start rethinking their mission in the Arctic—and start practicing gunnery. Watch this topic closely for further information in the future.
-- This Story First Appeared in The National Interest --
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.