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.

25 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.”

  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.”

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