More and more, the Arctic is finding its way into the consciousness of the nation’s leaders. The Arctic is becoming more ice-free, and China and Russia are moving — have been moving — to assert themselves in this polar vacuum.
At the rate things are going, though, the vacuum will cease to exist and nations other than the United States will have dominance in the region. And, it should be remembered, the region includes the northern Alaska coastline of the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
So it is with urgency that the U.S. needs to increase its complement of polar icebreakers.
How many does the U.S. have? Count them on two fingers.
The Coast Guard operates the medium-duty icebreaker Healy and the heavy-duty icebreaker Polar Star. A third vessel, the Polar Sea, has been out of commission since 2010 because of engine failure, and the Coast Guard determined earlier this year that it would be too costly to repair. It is now considered a parts donor for the Polar Star.
The primary mission of the Polar Star, however, isn’t the Arctic. It’s the Antarctic, where the ship travels annually to break a path through the ice for resupply ships heading to McMurdo Station, the U.S. research facility located on Antarctica’s Ross Island.
That leaves the medium-duty icebreaker Healy as the only U.S. icebreaker presence on the top end of the Earth. That’s an unacceptable situation that could be, at long last, heading for improvement.
The Coast Guard last year announced plans to build three icebreakers, though nothing was going to happen to that plan without Congress providing the funding. Alaska’s congressional delegation has long been pushing for a stronger presence in the Arctic and has been working to convince others in Congress that icebreakers are a national concern, not just an Alaska issue.
Congress took another big step forward on that matter Monday with Senate passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, a mammoth piece of legislation that increases the scale of the nation’s missile defense system, increases the size of the Army and Marines, provides funding for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and contains numerous other items — including construction of six icebreakers.
The vote wasn’t close: 89-8.
Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, who worked on securing icebreakers in the legislation, called it “the largest single authorization of icebreakers ever.”
There’s still a ways to go, though, and icebreakers aren’t cheap, carrying a price tag of about $1 billion apiece. Senate passage of the National Defense Authorization Act is only one half of the process; the Senate will have to vote on separate legislation to actually allocate the funding that the defense act authorizes. That effort will be aided by the presence of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who also been working on the need for more icebreakers, on the Senate Appropriations Committee
The House passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act in July, including language worked on by Rep. Don Young that allows the Coast Guard to partner with the Navy to acquire three new medium-class icebreakers and three new heavy-class icebreakers. The overall House and Senate bills will need to be reconciled before being sent to President Donald Trump for signing, but it’s encouraging to see the general agreement between the two chambers on the subject of icebreakers.
The need for Arctic icebreakers is clear and nonpartisan, evidenced by comments made by then-President Barack Obama during his 2015 visit to Alaska. In Seward, Mr. Obama proposed building more icebreakers and speeding up their acquisition.
Momentum is building for the U.S. to at last have a fleet of icebreakers. Two ships, one of which regularly is on the bottom pole of the planet, has proved to be grossly inadequate for the rapidly advancing race for the Arctic.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,