America must close the Icebreaker Gap

With the Paris climate talks behind us, the world appears serious about mitigating the environmental impacts already afoot and preparing for those ahead. Yet the United States remains dangerously unprepared for the profound changes and opportunities coming to the Arctic. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the pitiful state of its icebreaker fleet.

The United States has just one heavy ice breaker and no plans to build more, a short-sighted and foolhardy policy that will leave it scrambling to catch up with Arctic nations competing for shipping routes and resources as Arctic ice continues its retreat…

…Every other nation touching the Arctic Circle maintains a robust fleet. Russia, for example, is adding a dozen icebreakers to what already is the world’s biggest fleet. This sorry state of affairs led Alaska Republican Senator Dan Sullivan to say, The highways of the Arctic are paved by icebreakers. Right now, the Russians have superhighways, and we have dirt roads with potholes.”

The Obama administration recognizes the need to expand the fleet and recently urged Congress to authorize the purchase of a heavy icebreaker by 2020.

And you know as well as I do — that Congress won’t authorize a penny for anything that floats that doesn’t carry guns or missiles or both.

45 thoughts on “America must close the Icebreaker Gap

  1. Meanwhile says:

    “Russian icebreaker breaks speed record on Arctic route” (12/31/16)
    “Russia’s Newest Icebreaker, MV Murmansk” (12/30/15)
    Russia is building the world’s largest universal nuclear-powered icebreaker is planned to be completed by 2017. In all, ten civilian nuclear-powered vessels have been built in the USSR and Russia. Re: Project 22220 see

    • ништя́k says:

      Video: World’s First ‘Oblique’ Icebreaker Breaks Ice Sideways
      Built by Arctech Helsinki for the Russian Ministry of Transport, the Icebreaking Multipurpose Emergency and Rescue Vessel Baltika is a first-of-its-kind icebreaker built with an asymmetrical hull allowing for not only ahead and astern icebreaking, but also “oblique” (or sideways) icebreaking to create a channel up 50 meters wide. The vessel is also fitted with a built-in oil recovery system.

  2. Semper Paratus says:

    “USCG to finally seek new polar ice breakers” “The US Coast Guard (USCG) on 13 January posted a package of information on the Federal Business Opportunities website with acquisition timelines and requirements for new ice breakers, Admiral Paul Zukunft, commandant of the USCG, revealed at the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium.
    The United States has only one heavy and one medium ice breaker and for the past several years had hoped to somehow reconstitute an ice breaker fleet. …The ‘ice breaker package’ posted in Federal Business Opportunities was not published publically. It provides industry teams with “a draft data package that includes a notional programme schedule, notional Polar Icebreaker requirements, and questions that the government intends to discuss during the one-on-one meetings”. The United States has a limited ice-breaking capability, while Arctic rival Russia has 41 ice breakers and 14 under construction.”

  3. Fridtjof says:

    “Arctic Ocean Holds ‘Mind-Boggling’ Opportunities” “As chairman of investments at Guggenheim Partners, Scott Minerd thought he had a realistic view on how big an economic challenge climate change poses. Then, at a Hoover Institution conference almost three years ago, he met former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz. Minerd recalled him saying: “Scott, imagine that you woke up tomorrow morning, and the headline on the newspapers was, ‘The World Has Discovered a New Ocean.’” The opening of the Arctic, Shultz told him, may be one of the most important events since the end of the ice age, some 12,000 years ago. …Not long after that Hoover conference, Minerd joined a World Economic Forum advisory council. Its task? Develop guidelines for those nations looking to do business at the top of the world. That framework is to be released Thursday, in Davos. The Arctic Investment Protocol, developed by a 22-member WEF “global agenda council,” puts forward sustainability principles similar to initiatives developed for mature economies in recent years. The focus is long-term: tap the expertise of indigenous communities and treat them as commercial partners, protect ecosystems (even as rising temperatures change them before our eyes), and prevent corruption while encouraging international collaboration. The Arctic nations include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S., so there is a lot of collaboration to be had.

    • CTF says:

      “This Is What Russia Wants in the Arctic” (podcast)
      Moscow has at least six military bases in the region, bolstered by 16 deep-water ports and 13 airfields, moved surface-to-air missiles into its new territory and deployed hundreds of troops to the region. In summer 2016, the Kremlin launched the Arktika, a nuclear powered icebreaker it thinks will help make headway in previously unexploited tracts of land.
      This week on War College, naval war expert Iain Ballantyne walks us through what Russia wants in the Arctic and what it’s doing to make it happen. For Ballantyne, Moscow’s rush to the North Pole is about more than just resources, it’s about power projection and gaining new access to the world’s oceans.

  4. Cassandra says:

    LONDON, Feb 25 (Reuters) – The Arctic is thawing even faster than lawmakers can formulate new rules to prevent the environmental threat of heavy fuel oil pollution from ships plying an increasingly popular trade route. Average Arctic temperatures are rising twice as fast as elsewhere in the world and the polar ice cap’s permanent cover is shrinking at a rate of around 10 percent per decade. By the end of this century, summers in the Arctic could be free of ice. As the ice melts, traffic of ships carrying cargoes of gas, coal and diesel through the region has increased. Russia, in particular, is keen to expand shipping through the Arctic given its rich natural resources and efforts to cut costs. It aims to cut journey times between Europe and Asia by 30 to 40 percent.
    See also map of Arctic shipping routes @

  5. Pomor says:

    Russia has ordered two Project 23550 ice-class armed patrol boats, the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced. The class is described (in Russian) by the MoD as being “without analogues in the world”, and combining “the qualities of tug, ice-breaker, and patrol boat”. The two vessels ordered will be built by Admiralty Shipyards in St Petersburg and are scheduled to be delivered to the Russian Navy by 2020.

  6. Au contraire says:

    July 12, 2016: “Recent budget proposals from both House and Senate committees have committed additional funds towards the development of U.S. Coast Guard assets, including the procurement of a new polar icebreaker. Icebreakers are critical to facilitate commerce in Arctic waterways and on the Great Lakes throughout the year; the vessels are also used by government entities for research purposes and by private entities for commercial activities.”

  7. Heads UP says:

    Two Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers reach North Pole During his annual northern tour earlier this month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada cannot be complacent in the face of growing Russian aggression.
    The Eskimo Rag (1912)

  8. Тормозить says:

    “New Russian Arctic military base is declared ready for operation : The Northern Fleet moves into its new premises at Kotelny, the New Siberian Islands.” “Several more Arctic bases are in the pipeline. The Nagurskoye base in Franz Josef Land is reported to be 98 percent finished, Spetsstroy informs. In addition come the bases on Wrangel Island and Cape Shmidt, where eight new buildings will stand ready by the end of the year. Another 68 buildings are to be built on the two bases in the course of 2017.”
    “On this day in 1958, the Third Soviet Antarctic Expedition became the first in the world to successfully conquer the Pole of Inaccessibility – the most difficult-to-reach place on the most remote continent on earth.”

  9. Mike says:

    (Pew Charitable Trusts 2/28/17) Vessel traffic through the Bering Strait and northern Bering Sea could become safer as a result of new recommendations from the U.S. Coast Guard. This week the Coast Guard released its Bering Strait Port Access Route Study [see link] after a 6-year public process to develop a route and additional safety measures for the gateway between the Pacific and Arctic oceans. See also “Ship Traffic in the Bering Strait”

  10. трэкол says:

    “Russians test military hardware in first ever drive to Arctic island” (Jane’s) See also “Russians First in the World to Reach Island in Arctic on Military Equipment” (Sputnik) In December 2014, Moscow unveiled a revised military doctrine that prioritizes the protection of national interests in the Arctic. See also related articles

  11. Cheechako says:

    “150 Years After Sale of Alaska, Some Russians Have Second Thoughts” (NYT)
    “Putin stresses Russia’s military activities in Arctic threaten no one” (TASS)
    See also comments by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation posting)
    Re: Argumenty i Fakty (“Arguments and Facts”) see

  12. Edward J. Smith says:

    “Wild swarms of Arctic icebergs are making shipping companies miserable” The highest concentration of rogue ice is off the southeast tip of Newfoundland. The Titanic sunk after striking an iceberg just to the south of that area, so dangerous ice isn’t exactly abnormal for the region. The early start to iceberg season is, however. According to the Associated Press, the number of icebergs currently in the water is more in line with what the Coast Guard expects to see in May or June. As a result, ships are having to slow down or travel hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid suffering the same fate as the Titanic.
    The wild start to iceberg season fits with a pattern of rapid Arctic change that could alter access to the region. The sea ice minimum, usually hit in September, has decreased by more than 13 percent a decade since the late 1970s. That’s largely driven by the warm air and water invading the region due to climate change.

  13. Chili Willy says:

    “New Report Recommends Construction of Four New Polar Icebreakers of the Same Design as the Lowest-Cost Strategy for Protecting U.S. Interests in Arctic and Antarctic”
    “The U.S. lacks icebreaking capability in the Arctic and Antarctic and should build four polar icebreakers with heavy icebreaking capability to help minimize the life-cycle costs of icebreaker acquisition and operations, says a new congressionally mandated letter report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.”
    Copies of “Acquisition and Operation of Polar Icebreakers: Fulfilling the Nation’s Needs” are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at

  14. Ahoy says:

    “Global warming means Sovcomflot’s ships without icebreakers can carry liquefied natural gas across the Arctic” The ship traveled from Norway to South Korea in merely 19 days—about 30% faster than the more commonly used route, through the Suez Canal. There will be some fuel savings in transportation, but this will also make natural gas slightly cheaper and thus incentivize burning it.
    In 2016, the Arctic sea route saw 19 full transits from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but each used an ice-breaker for some parts of their travel. Sovcomflot is betting that Arctic ice will continue to thin in the years ahead.
    “There is an assumption that the ice is not going to thicken dramatically for the economic life of these vessels, which could be over 30 years,” Bill Spears from Sovcomflot told the BBC.
    “First tanker crosses northern sea route without ice breaker” (BBC) “The specially-built ship completed the crossing in just six-and-a-half days setting a new record, according to the tanker’s Russian owners. On this trip it was able to keep up an average speed of 14 knots despite sailing through ice that was over one metre thick in places.”

    • Заря says:

      Timelapse Video: Icebreaking LNG Carrier ‘Eduard Toll’ Transits the Northern Sea Route Eduard Toll is the fourth of 15 total Arc7 LNG carriers being built for Russia’s $27 billion Yamal LNG project and the first of six belonging to Teekay that have been contracted to service the project. Built in Korea, the Eduard Toll transited the Northern Sea Route earlier this year to Sabetta, where the first loading took place in late January prior to completing the voyage to France. Eduard Gustav von Toll (1858~1902) was a Russian geologist and Arctic explorer.

  15. Gweilo Joe says:

    “Chinese icebreaker exits Northwest Passage in historic voyage : State news agency Xinhua reports that vessel has opened up a new sea lane in the Arctic that will cut transportation times by seven days”
    “Slowly but surely, China is carving a foothold through the Arctic : Polar research vessel’s journey along Northwest Passage could pave the way for commercial development in the resource-rich region”
    “China’s Arctic Road and Belt gambit : Strategic concerns over the vulnerability of China’s current trade routes and climate change are pushing Beijing to pay growing attention to developing new transport infrastructure and shipping routes across the increasingly accessible Arctic, experts say.”

  16. Kotzebue says:

    “U.S. Coast Guard falls behind Russia in new Arctic arms race” (CBS News December 18, 2017)
    Sept 22. 2017: “Russia has launched the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker ship in a bid to expand its strategic presence in the resource-rich, but unforgiving, terrain of the Arctic.
    The massive vessel, named Sibir (Siberia), was developed as part of a huge push by the Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation to open up crucial shipping lanes in the icy Northern Sea Route, where climate change and commercial competition have attracted international attention.”

  17. Frosty says:

    The Coast Guard’s new icebreakers will have space, displacement and electric power for weapons when they enter service starting around 2023. The Coast Guard wants to be able to “fully weaponize these [ships] and make these a capable platform offensively in the event this world changes in the next five, 10, even 15 years from now,” Coast Guard commandant Paul Zukunft said at the Surface Navy Association conference in Virginia in January 2018. “You can’t project out the status quo.” The Coast Guard is building up to six new icebreakers to replace the 42-year-old Polar Star, which at 14,000 tons displacement is the only heavy icebreaker currently in U.S. government service. Capable of cracking ice up to 21 feet thick, Polar Star is the only U.S. vessel capable of carving a path to America’s Antarctic research station. Zukunft didn’t say which weapons the Coast Guard has in mind for the new icebreakers, the first of which could end up costing $1 billion. The U.S. Navy is paying for the first new icebreaker. The Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard’s parent agency, will likely cover the cost of subsequent icebreakers.

  18. Hulk says:

    Feb 7, 2018: “America’s Only Heavy Icebreaker Experienced Flooding, Engine Failure During Annual Antarctic Supply Mission” The Coast Guard is currently in the process of procuring a single new heavy polar icebreaker, however, construction is not expected to begin until 2019 at the earliest, and the necessary funds have still not been appropriated. Delivery of the vessel is not expected until 2023, based on current estimates.

  19. ‘I-Scream’ says:

    (RT 3/11/18) Putin: Russia won’t threaten anyone in Arctic, but will ensure national safety Includes video of Russia’s Northern fleet performing amphibious drills in Arctic waters.
    Also: “Ilya Muromets, the Russian Navy’s cutting-edge icebreaker designed for Arctic operations, has begun sea trials. RT looks at the country’s first MILITARY icebreaker in 40 years, set to become a one-of-its-kind reinforcement for sailing in icy high seas. (video and photos)

  20. Zheng He says:

    China Building Arctic Cruise Ship for “Polar Silk Road” China released its first official Arctic policy white paper in January, in which it revealed plans to encourage companies to build infrastructure and conduct commercial trial voyages with the goal of building a “Polar Silk Road.”
    The Belt and Road initiative aims to boost China’s global role by connecting China to countries in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere through large infrastructure projects.

  21. Ahoy says:

    Researchers Map Seven Years of Arctic Shipping “The Arctic’s declining sea ice has meant more opportunities for the shipping industry to expand its use of the region that in decades past was unnavigable for the vast majority of the year.
    The Northwest Passage through Canada and the Northern Sea Route, or Northeast Passage, north of Russia and Siberia, are both valued because they could significantly shorten ship transit times between Asia, Europe, and North America.
    In August 2017, a newly designed LNG carrier with an ice-hardened hull became the first merchant ship to sail across the Arctic Ocean without the aid of an icebreaker. The vessel, the Christophe de Margerie, made the voyage in just 19 days, nearly a week faster than the traditional route through the Suez Canal.
    In February, a similar tanker, the Eduard Atoll, completed its own unescorted trip through the region in the dead of winter, marking another historic first. During that voyage, the vessel sailed South Korea to Sabetta terminal in northern Russia, where it loaded LNG produced at a new $27 billion plant and transported it to France.
    To illustrate this increase in ship activity in the Arctic, a team of scientists has banded together to analyze and map more than 120 million data points in order to track where ships are most using the region.”

    • Skønt says:

      Photos: Venta Maersk’s Passage of the Northern Sea Route (October 12, 2018)
      “Despite the success of the voyage, however, Maersk says the Northern Sea Route is still not seen as an alternative to the existing east-west routes.
      “Operations in the Arctic pose completely different demands on ships and their design. The passage is feasible for around three months during the summer, marked by a lack of obstructive ice. That said, ice conditions can vary and are in general difficult to predict. Thus, assistance by icebreakers which are around to support safe navigation all year will still be necessary,” elaborates Meisel. “Furthermore, we also must consider that ice-classed vessels are required to make the passage. Going forward, there will be more dependency with the Polar Code which would also mean additional investments.”

  22. Hoser says:

    June 19, 2018: The Canadian Coast Guard’s annual Arctic operational season is underway and includes a maiden voyage to the Arctic by the CCGS Samuel Risley. The season will run into late November, providing extended vessel presence in the Arctic under investments from the $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan.
    see also Arctic Security Working Group (Hoover Institution)

  23. Hand over fist says:

    “The 10,000-tonne hull of the RRS Sir David Attenborough was launched into the River Mersey on Saturday, marking a major milestone in the build of the UK’s new state-of-the-art polar research ship.” “The £200 million polar research ship was commissioned by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and will be operated by the British Antarctic Survey upon its delivery in 2019.
    The ship became an internet meme in 2016 after NERC hosted an online naming contest for the vessel in which the name ‘Boaty McBoatface‘ was over overwhelmingly selected as the winner.
    Participating in Saturday’s launch was Sir David Attenborough himself, the well-known English broadcaster, naturalist and actual person.
    Once completed, the new research ship will be one of the most technology-advanced polar research vessels in the world, representing the UK government’s largest investment in polar science since the 1980s.”

  24. Update says:

    “The United States could have a new Arctic strategy before the end of the year, according to Admiral Karl Schultz, the US Coast Guard (USCG) commandant.” (Jane’s 8/2/18) “The United States can no longer only worry about what it plans to do about Arctic operations in the future, said Adm Schultz, but must take more direct action now. “It’s no longer an emerging frontier,” he said. “It’s a competitive space, it is about competition. We’ve got to press into that.”
    While the United States struggles to find funding and resources to build an icebreaker fleet, for example, Russia has a substantial fleet operating in the region and is building a nuclear icebreaker. China, meanwhile, which is not officially an Arctic nation, is building its own icebreakers, Adm Schultz noted. The country recently declared itself a “near-Arctic” state.
    The United States needs at least six icebreakers, said the admiral, three of which should be heavy icebreakers.”
    “Here’s what’s in the Defense Department’s new Arctic strategy” (Feb 2017)

  25. Outtasight says:

    “Coast Guard Plan to Build New Icebreakers May Be in Trouble” (9/6/18)
    “Why Is China Building a Nuclear-Powered Icebreaker?” (9/14/18)
    “Department of Homeland Security transferred $29 million from Coast Guard to ICE” (9/13/18)
    meanwhile: “A US Air Force (USAF) B-52H nuclear-capable bomber has flown a long-range mission along Russia’s Arctic region as both countries continue to make shows of strength around each other’s coasts.” (9/19/18) The Bomb Run Sequence from “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)

  26. Autodefenestration says:

    “As Russia solidifies grip on the Arctic, America’s no-icebreaker Navy can barely make a visit ” (NEWSREP 1/14/19) “…Even plans for a new ice breaker that could grant the U.S. Navy access to the frosty region are now hanging in the balance, as lawmakers consider stripping its funding in favor of building a southern border wall that has become the pivot point of what is now the longest government shutdown in American history.”
    Russia’s ice breaking fleet boasts more than 40 ships, with 11 more under construction. Russia is also the only nation on the planet to field nuclear-powered icebreakers, marking a significant advantage over diesel-powered vessels that must return to ports for refueling at more frequent intervals.
    By comparison, the United States currently maintains one operational heavy icebreaker — and calling it “operational” is actually a pretty generous assessment. The Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star was first commissioned in 1976 and saw a refit in 2012 that was intended to keep it in service. Its sister ship, the Polar Sea, was commissioned at the same time but has already surrendered to the rigors of time — surviving now only as a parts donor for the aging, and ailing, Polar Star.

  27. Arrr! says:

    The 150 crewmembers of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star have arrived in Antarctica along with a resupply vessel as part of Operation Deep Freeze, the annual mission to resupply U.S. interests in Antarctica.
    The icebreaker’s arrival comes after the crew experienced multiple mechanical issues, including ship-wide power outages, and against the backdrop of the partial government shutdown that has left Coast Guard servicemembers without pay.
    Homeported in Seattle, the 42-year-old Coast Guard cutter is the United States’ only operational heavy icebreaker.
    During this year’s deployment, the Coast Guard reports that one of the ship’s electrical systems began to smoke, causing damage to wiring in an electrical switchboard, and one of the ship’s two evaporators used to make drinkable water failed.
    The ship also experienced a leak from the shaft that drives the ship’s propeller, which halted icebreaking operations so divers could repair the seal around the shaft. A hyperbaric chamber on loan from the U.S. Navy aboard the ship allows Coast Guard divers to make external emergency repairs and inspections of the ship’s hull. One of the Polar Star’s ship wide power failures lasted 9 hours, during which the ship’s power plant had to be shut off.
    Russia currently operates more than 40 icebreakers, including several of which are nuclear powered, the Coast Guard noted.

  28. Realpolitik says:

    (April 24, 2019): Yesterday, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy awarded VT Halter Marine Inc., Pascagoula, Mississippi, a contract for the Detail Design and Construction of the Coast Guard’s lead Polar Security Cutter (PSC).
    The initial award is valued at $745.9 million and supports non-recurring engineering and detail design of the PSC class as well as procurement of long lead-time materials and construction of the first ship. The contract also includes options for the construction of two additional PSCs. If all options are exercised, the total contract value is $1.9 billion.
    “The Chinese are building nuclear-powered icebreakers, something the U.S. has not even contemplated. At more than 30,000 tons, the Chinese ships will outpace any other nation’s capability with the exception of Russia (which operates the world’s largest fleet of icebreakers, including several huge nuclear-powered models), and will join a fleet of six conventionally powered ships. The U.S., on the other hand, has only three active Coast Guard icebreakers, two of which are quite small.
    Icebreakers are key to two crucial elements of what makes the Arctic so strategically vital. The first is the enormous trove of hydrocarbons that will be uncovered as the ice melts. Some estimates approach 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and nearly 100 billion barrels of oil. Icebreakers open the logistics paths for placement of the necessary oil and gas rigs. Additionally, the melting Arctic ice will create shipping routes that could be geopolitically central for China’s One Belt, One Road global development strategy.

  29. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes... says:

    Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Yamal conducting Arctic operations along the Northern Sea Route in March 2019. Also shown in the video is Russia’s first Arktika-class icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory). The two icebreakers are the only two Arktika-class icebreakers still in service and recognized as the largest and most powerful icebreakers in the world.
    “As Polar Ice Cap Recedes, The U.S. Navy Looks North” (NPR 6/12/19) The Defense Department views the threat of military conflict in the Arctic as low, but it is alarmed by increasing activity in the region from Russia and China. A 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office on the Navy’s role in the Arctic notes that abundant natural resources like gas, minerals and fish stocks are becoming more accessible as the polar ice cap melts, bringing “competing sovereignty claims.” See
    “‘The Changes Are Really Accelerating’: Alaska at Record Warm While Greenland Sees Major Ice Melt”

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