Icebreakers and U.S. Power: Separating Fact from Fiction


Icebreakers are integral to the security of the American Arctic, but the media, pundits, and policymakers have become confused as to how.  In a maritime region covered by ice for substantial portions of the year, these vessels are the only means to ensure year-round marine access to northern communities and sea lanes.  As such, they allow for emergency response, law enforcement, and commercial activity in one of the harshest regions on earth.  Icebreakers are, however, of very limited value for defense purposes, and, yet, it is in military terms that their procurement has increasingly come to be framed.  This creates more than simply a problem of semantics, as casting icebreaker construction in such language risks negative practical impacts on the Arctic and national security.

Despite their indispensable role in the far north, the American icebreaker fleet — the responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard — has been severely neglected.  It currently consists of one heavy icebreaker (recently refurbished but due for decommissioning sometime “between December 2019 and December 2022”) and one medium icebreaker.  A second heavy icebreaker has been out of service since experiencing engine failure in 2010.  Meanwhile, studies commissioned by the Coast Guard put forth that three of each class are required for the year-round fulfillment of northern responsibilities — although the Coast Guard vice commandant has said that the service only “needs at least two heavy icebreakers” given current demands.  Regardless of the recommendation relied upon, there exists a gap between American icebreaking need and the Coast Guard’s icebreaking capability, creating a northern vulnerability.

Yet after substantial delay, progress is finally being made toward the funding of a new heavy icebreaker.  The Obama administration and members of Congress have taken up the banner of icebreaker fleet recapitalization, and the $1 billion needed for such a vessel has been added to a proposed bipartisan funding bill.  The Navy will also be joining forces with the Coast Guard for the acquisition process given its far greater expertise in large-scale ship procurement.  (It remains to be seen whether this process will churn out a ship before the icebreaker fleet is reduced to a single unit and the gap between needs and capacity expands).

Despite the aforementioned positive steps, however, popular and governmental icebreaker discourse is increasingly framed in inappropriate terms.  Beyond human, economic, and environmental security — and often in their absence — icebreaker procurement is increasingly advocated in terms of defense operations.  As an example, Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a key Congressional proponent of icebreaker construction, recently said:

My concerns continue to lie with current mission gaps in the Arctic, particularly defense readiness, due to the inability of assets to support year-round missions in the region.

And these concerns are driven by the conception of the Arctic as a region of coming conflict and ominous comparisons between America’s depleted icebreaker fleet and Russia’s fleet, which boasts more than 40 vessels.  It is widely contended that the United States suffers an “icebreaker gap” with regard to Russia that it must close to adequately defend its northern interests and win the “race for the Arctic.”

But there is no race to be won. Most Arctic territory and resources are solidly within the jurisdictions of Arctic states, and disputed continental shelves are in the process of being amicably apportioned under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (Although not party to this treaty, the United States accepts the majority of it as customary international law “binding on nations that do not specifically decline to adhere to them”).  Arctic states have been operating under this body of law for roughly 15 years. Contrary to what many in Washington might expect, Russia has been an active participant in this process from the beginning. Indeed, Russia has the most to gain from an adhered-to, rules-based Arctic international regime (or lose if this regime degrades). As such, it is unlikely that the spirit of cooperation that pervades northern relations will evaporate any time soon.

Even if there were a race for the Arctic that involved military forces, icebreakers would be of limited benefit.  Russian icebreakers add little military value in terms of any theoretical Arctic naval combat.  Strategic theaters where icebreakers must operate are largely unfit for surface warfare and warships.  These vessels would be confined to paths carved, and routes already plowed would refreeze without constant icebreaker traversal.  In addition, icebreakers turn solid ice sheets into dangerous stretches of large, floating chunks of ice, so even cleared paths are not without risk.  Surface warships would therefore lack freedom of movement and be sitting ducks for aerial, undersea, and shore-based enemy forces.  Moreover, even if icebreakers were to be armed themselves, they would be ineffective warships.  They are massive and ungainly beasts, built for power and to crush ice rather than to maneuver ably.  This lack of inherent maneuverability is compounded by the presence of ice in any environment in which icebreakers are needed. (The Navy has stated that even the complete loss of icebreaker support in the Arctic would have “minimal impact” on its responsibilities).

Russian icebreakers are not critical to the country’s navy because they facilitate Arctic naval surface warfare.  Rather, they are strategically essential because Russia’s principal shipyards, Northern Fleet, and only access route to the Atlantic Ocean without a major chokepoint are all located in or traverse the Arctic.  Icebreakers allow Russian surface warships to enter and exit the country’s most important naval bases and reach the Atlantic Ocean.  This is a necessity that has no comparison for the United States.

Furthermore, the bulk of Russian icebreakers and icebreaker missions carry out non-military duties.  The economy and shipping activity of the Russian Arctic dwarfs that of America’s far north.  And, as a petro-state, Russia is keenly interested in developing Arctic fossil fuels to maintain future revenue streams. As such, Russia’s icebreakers are integral to maintaining Arctic shipping lanes and port access as well as providing emergency response, rescue, and law enforcement capacity.  These are the core functions for which such vessels are needed in the U.S. Arctic as well, but in much smaller numbers.

In many respects, talk of an “icebreaker gap” emulates the “missile gap” fervor of the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Alarmed by the launch of Sputnik and reports of the speedy development of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles in the face of perceived U.S. stagnation, Americans became hyper-focused on comparing missile counts between the two countries.  But, as noted by Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association, this “focus on simple side-by-side numerical comparisons was misplaced; the more important question was whether the U.S. ability to threaten devastating nuclear retaliation was really in jeopardy.”  That is, the key policy locus was not how many missiles the Soviets had, but how many the United States needed to achieve its goals and best maintain national security.  (It must also be noted that the missile gap did not actually exist at all).  Similarly, the number of icebreakers possessed by Russia has no significant bearing on the number the United States needs, nor on how these vessels should be deployed.  The unique character of its own Arctic territory is the critical metric.

A defense impetus for the construction of U.S. icebreakers is, however, more than just spurious grounds for icebreaker procurement: poor issue framing can beget poor policy, and poor policy can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities or create new ones.

First, if expensive icebreakers are purchased and built with the expectation that they contribute to U.S. defense, the Navy will be pressured to utilize them regularly for Arctic surface warfare exercises and the sailing of warships through the Arctic.  Given the low military tension in the region and the general impracticality of surface warships in icy waters, this would entail significant waste of naval assets and funds that could more fruitfully contribute to national security elsewhere, particularly if Duncan’s vision of a year-round Arctic defense presence is realized.

Second, constructing icebreakers with prominent defense expectations risks meaningfully diverting them from their core functions once built, which are: emergency response, law enforcement, research, and facilitating northern commerce.  If an icebreaker has to take several weeks to be party to a naval exercise or lead a warship on a simple Arctic “sail through,” that is time the vessel is unavailable for what it is actually needed for.

Icebreakers contribute to U.S. Arctic security by providing human, economic, and environmental security, not by meaningfully enhancing northern defense capabilities.  Consequently, efforts to frame these vessels in military terms risk degrading American security both in the Arctic and elsewhere.


Andreas Kuersten is a law clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF).  He previously worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Arctic projects and is a former fellow with the Arctic Summer College.  The opinions expressed herein are solely his own and do not reflect those of CAAF or the U.S. government.

Image: Pink floyd88 a, CC