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

October 11, 2016

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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

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15 thoughts on “Icebreakers and U.S. Power: Separating Fact from Fiction

  1. Let me see if I get this straight, ice breakers will provide no support to defense what so ever and therefore shouldn’t be brought into the discussion? How naïve.

    Dismissing the topic as a red herring a la “the missile gap” is a problem; particularly given the only US Navy ships that can operate for extended durations in the Arctic (and zero notation of US ice breaker operations in the Antarctic in this article but that’s what happens requiring the US’s single operational primary ice breaker to traverse the planet from North to South pol and back) are its submarines. Current Navy ships are not able to operate for long periods of time as they are not hardened against the weather and the lack of robust communications networks is also a problem. Further, the Russians have re-established numerous northern bases, stocked them with aircraft, military forces, unmanned systems, and ground vehicles (tanks, artillery, etc) and having a true fleet of ice breakers, at least six of which are nuclear powered, begs the question of how US ice breakers do not have defense applications.

    Does the US have an interest in the Arctic? Of course; especially when the Northwest Passage is viable for commercial trade which would put the strategic aspect of the Panama Canal (where China operates both entry and exit points by the way) into question since sue of a viable NWP would decrease operating costs for the world shipping and decrease shipment times.

    The Obama administration acted like a supermarket conducting a sale when it pushed procurement of a single US ice breaker into the mid-2020s and didn’t fund things and then promptly “pushed up construction” and added a billion to “make it happen sooner” so as to be seen doing something.

    However, if/when the money becomes available, constructing an ice breaker takes about 10 years so even if the money appeared next year, once construction and sea trials were completed the Coast Guard probably wouldn’t see the single ice breaker constructed until around 2030 at the earliest (the US hasn’t built an ice breaker since the early 1970s meaning the production line doesn’t exist and there is no trained workforce requiring more money because only a single ship is the goal). Meanwhile, China is constructing their second ice breaker and once done they will exceed US capabilities; Denmark, Finland, and Sweden have more than the US does.

    Russian ice breakers are critical to their entire military; especially when the Northeast Passage is open for commercial operations. Dismissing the growing Russian ice breaker fleet as something designed to help out for getting access to ports for oil shipments misses the point; Russia has its eyes on at least half the Arctic and the mineral resources under the polar ice cap and the Arctic Council that overseas the north, where the US is currently the chair which is ironic given the US has not signed the UNCLOS treaty, is not a military council and has less teeth than the UN.

    Meanwhile, Russia is installing reactors into its, and the planet’s, largest ice breaker, the Artika which displaces 33,500 tons, is 570 feet long and is the first of three ships to be launched (in 2017, 2018, and 2020). The US will decommission its only large ice breaker right as the third “super-breaker” in the Russia fleet is being commissioned.

    Simple math shows a very real gap when one nation has 1.5 ships and the other nearly 40. Better yet, how about a graphic depiction form our own USCG from 2013:

    1. “…. Denmark, Finland, and Sweden have more than the US does.”

      As well they should as all 3 have a much greater need for ice breakers (Greenland belongs to Denmark).

      “…..especially when the Northwest Passage is viable for commercial trade….”

      Approximately 80% of the Northwest Passage is through Canadian waters.

      Canada’s ice breaker fleet (2 heavy, 4 medium, 8 light) would be responsible for their portion.

      1. The issue you don’t address is that the US does not see the NWP as being Canadian, a sticking point for if/when it becomes viable for more routine trade use. This has been an ongoing North American discussion point for the last decade or so if not longer.

        Dismissing that “its a Canadian issue” is short-sighted. Canada currently has no real infrastructure to support expanded operations although they have been doing lots of planning and proposing over the last several decades.

  2. Comments like that by Patrick show why this article is so important. Views of the Arctic as a pressing strategic theater of coming conflict simply because Russia has a meaningful presence there emanate from the province of the uninformed. Popular Arctic discourse has become contaminated by talk of confrontation by commentators with no real Arctic knowledge, despite the regional relations being pervaded by cooperation.

    As the author elaborates on, Russia has been committed to the peaceful resolution of overlapping continental shelf claims in the Arctic for decades. Furthermore, its investments in Arctic infrastructure, including defense assets, are directed at ensuring law enforcement and overall security capacity as the north melts and opens up. It has a keen interest in establishing the Northern Sea Route as a principal shipping lane and wants to be able to police it and ensure its safety. Moreover, Russia has a supremely massive Arctic coastline that is a major strategic vulnerability. Putting military assets up there ensures it security. These developments are not offensive, no matter how much people who know little of the Arctic push for this to be the case.

    Certainly, the Navy needs to up its game in the Arctic as the region clears of ice and becomes more active (The author even has a piece over at CIMSEC assessing the Navy’s Arctic position: But, as the author astutely notes, icebreakers are not a meaningful part of this equation. Rather, enhanced logistical, communications, and base infrastructure are needed. If the Navy actually thought that icebreakers were needed for it to maintain an advantage in the Arctic, it would certainly be saying so and seeking to cannibalize the special icebreaker funding intended for the Coast Guard. The icebreaker gap between the U.S. and Russia has virtually no strategic implications. As Christopher P. Cavas of Defense News says, recent defense inspired icebreaker proposals are “the latest in a long series of nebulous, the-Russians-have-more-so-we-need-more calls from US officials for ships that still have no defined purpose.” (

    As for China, there should be little Arctic geopolitical concern at this point because all Arctic states, including Russia, are firmly aligned against “outsiders” having any meaningful influence in the area. Moreover, China is interested in the resources and shipping of the Arctic, which are all within the jurisdiction of Arctic states, so it is working with these countries on deals rather than attempting any sort of coercive action. It is well aware that it will catch more flies with honey rather than vinegar, particularly given the extraordinary unity among Arctic states in protecting their predominance in the region.

    Sadly, armchair commentators see Arctic relations as easy fodder for a quick article espousing alarmist rhetoric because it is a place where the West and Russia meet, and that China is marginally interested in. But nearly all serious Arctic scholars and practitioners involved with the area espouse opposite views and reiterate the largely amiable relations in the region.

    1. “Certainly, the Navy needs to up its game in the Arctic as the region clears of ice and becomes more active….”

      If the region clears of ice and becomes more active.

        1. Much like some analysts I work with, your failure to understand resourcing and timelines means when we need something is not the time to wonder if it can be built.

          If it takes 10 years and billions to build one icebreaker–and that includes funding construction of a production line, creating a workforce that hasn’t existed since the 1970s and training them–with no plans for additional ships the cost is driven up significantly–so what is your proposed “steady prep” plan?

          The failure of those uninformed on how production works and what the Navy will need (current ships in the fleet are not constructed for extended ops as I noted due to metal fatigue aspects amongst the lack of infrastructure) is that they are always surprised when those items built in low numbers come in at high costs.

          But please, what’s the preparation recommendations to slowly and steadily ramp up, what will they cost, how will those costs be paid, who is in charge, how will they be implemented, and who coordinates them with the rest of the Arctic nations?

          That’s called planning which single sentence comments related to “no worries, its not like the Russians are being aggressive they are just “peacefully progressing” because Russia has always been focused on doing that.

    2. Apparently I’m uninformed because the Arctic was a theater of operation during the Cold War, Russia continues expansion and claims, continues building bases and resourcing them, but your “pure” Arctic is ‘contaminated in discourse because confrontation over rights and minerals is distasteful to you?

      Why would you think I have no knowledge? You jump to conclusions based on a comment I made and that, my friend, is FaceBook analysis at its worst.

      Besides, your Russian peaceful platitudes ignores reality and dismissing military stationing in the Arctic by the Russians shows ignorance; the very “uninformed” aspect you accuse me of. Especially as you note China is an apparent non-player; perhaps you should be more informed since China has been observing in the Arctic Council now for two years. Coupled with building their own icebreakers, for which they have no apparent need, their look towards the long view that Westerns fail so well at is missing from your equations.

      Bottom line: dismissing comments from those you don’t agree with is juvenile and the method of the uniformed. Pacifist hopes are often dashed and such a progressive opinion as yours is the stuff of perfect world scenarios. Unless, like you, I’ve completely misjudged what you’re about. Next time, don’t write as if you are looking down your nose at others in the “great unwashed” and dismissing them as ‘armchair anything’ since they may have insights and experiences you’ve never had nor will. That is the approach of the closed minded academic.

      1. And apparently others are having growing concerns about Russian efforts int he Arctic:

        But then again, having one outdated, heavily used icebreaker of US operations in the Arctic and Antarctic isn’t a worry because steady prep by a nation that hasn’t signed UNCLOS, hasn’t dedicated more than a few pages for national strategy in the Arctic, and certainly hasn’t dedicated funding and resources beyond what we have now will deter another nation far more advanced in operations on land and sea up north.

        1. Typical response of the uninformed. Perhaps you should go back and actually read the article; start with the first line and then provide us with a synopsis of how icebreakers are important to American security in the Arctic that your extensive, on ice experience can provide. That is, more than your Russia fawning “original comment” can articulate.

          It seems you lack planning and strategy skills and beyond “serious scholar and practitioner” (whatever that nebulous phrase you noted means beyond “stuck in a cubicle”) “experience” your “its simply about peaceful co-existence” theme is shortsighted and fails the reality test.

          But good luck cleaning those rose colored glasses while actual doers work the hard planning and strategy aspects so you can academically approach what should be occurring.

    1. It’s great to see things finally happening with icebreaker procurement. But notice that the mention of Russia is completely in passing without any substantiation. And they’re simply citing “icebreaker advocates,” such as Rep. Hunter, who also have no backing for their claims. Moreover, the article’s emphasis is on the need for icebreakers as infrastructure due to an opening Arctic. While everyone should certainly be wary of Russia in any circumstance, icebreakers simply aren’t a prudent response even were Russia intent on belligerence in the region. They are needed most in order to help the people of the American Arctic and to aid in the region’s development. Defense reasoning risks everything the author of the article above says it does.