During his visit to Alaska last week, President Barack Obama took up the cause of an expanded U.S. icebreaker fleet. By lending his support for an accelerated timetable for acquiring new icebreakers, the president joined a cause that previously had been a fairly lonely battle championed almost exclusively by Alaska’s congressional delegation. The matter of how the icebreakers will be funded has yet to be resolved, and this has been the sticking point for previous attempts to include icebreaker money in federal budgets. But when it comes to having a political ally in the fight for expanded Arctic icebreaker capacity, one can do a lot worse than the U.S. commander-in-chief.
The president’s announcement in support of new icebreakers came on the heels of the restoring of Denali’s name and a relatively robust defense of offshore oil drilling in the Arctic, which may have left many Alaskans surprised to be agreeing with the president on multiple issues at the same time. As expressed in a statement the White House released last week, the president’s call for more icebreaker capacity wasn’t terribly specific. President Obama called for an accelerated timetable for building the one heavy icebreaker to which funds have already been committed. Under the president’s plan, that new icebreaker would be scheduled for completion by 2020 instead of 2022. In the statement, President Obama also said his administration would “begin planning for construction of additional icebreakers, and call on Congress to work with the administration to provide sufficient resources to fund these critical investments.”
The question of icebreakers’ importance is easily answered. Simply put, having more icebreakers greatly expands nations’ ability to operate in Arctic waters. Icebreakers are necessary to shepherd deliveries of fuel and other shipments through frozen waters, as well as provide capacity for rescuing icebound ships. As sea ice continues to recede, new shipping lanes are opening — but icebreakers are necessary to ensure those new routes are navigable and free from hazards.
Other circumpolar nations largely understand this reality. Sweden, Finland and Canada each have a half-dozen or more icebreakers to the meager two-vessel U.S. fleet. But the real threat in Arctic waters is Russia, a nation that has historically been bellicose about asserting its territorial authority — even going so far as to drop a Russian flag under the ice at the North Pole as a symbolic claim. And Russia, as the president’s release last week noted, has a staggering 40 icebreakers, with 11 more being planned or already under construction.
The billion-dollar question when it comes to new icebreakers, however, is who’s footing the bill — and yes, new icebreakers are projected to cost roughly a billion dollars apiece, which is no small commitment. In recent years, members of Alaska’s delegation in Washington, D.C., have been relatively successful in convincing their colleagues of the value of icebreakers. But the agencies whose budgets would potentially be affected — the Coast Guard, the Navy and the Department of Homeland Security — have squabbled over who should pay. This may be where the president’s support can be most helpful. As the man at the top of the ladder in the executive branch, President Obama would be wise to give direction as to where he would like to see icebreaker funding come from — his word would likely carry far more weight with the agencies than that of members of Congress.
There are still some major blanks that need filling in before the U.S. has new icebreakers. And no matter what the nation commits to with regard to new construction, America is sure to lag far behind Russia in icebreaker capacity. But even a few more vessels able to operate in Arctic waters would put the U.S. far less behind in a race that, until not long ago, only Alaska acknowledged the country was running — and losing badly.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,