The Icebreaker Gap Doesn’t Mean America is Losing in the Arctic
A warming Arctic is potentially creating a colder regional security environment. Exchanges of whiskey and schnapps — as the Canadians and Danes have done over the disputed Hans Island — may not suffice as new issues emerge. There are growing worries that a region long characterized by cooperation will no longer enjoy that exceptional status. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in May that “the region has become an arena for power and for competition.” And a number of recent U.S. government documents and speeches have highlighted similar concerns about competition in the Arctic.
For many, the United States is woefully behind, with serious implications for national defense. One of the most common and consistent metrics to make this case is a comparison of the numbers of U.S., Russian, and Chinese icebreakers. As Lindsay Rodman highlights, when comparing Russian military advantages relative to the United States in the Arctic, “the most often cited example is icebreakers.” By this standard, Washington is losing to Moscow — and it’s not even close. While Russia has at least 40 icebreakers in its fleet, China and the United States have two icebreakers apiece.
However, using relative icebreaker fleet sizes as a key metric for the state of strategic competition in the Arctic is flawed. While they are an important platform, icebreakers do little to create or address the most commonly identified defense challenges in the region. Instead, analysts should focus on the nature of the military risks in the Arctic, the role of allies and partners, and economic interests in a broader geopolitical context rather than comparing specific capabilities. Doing so is important to avoid mischaracterizing the scope of the danger or emphasizing the wrong types of solutions.
The Icebreaker Fleets
If relative icebreaker counts are the right way to measure competition in the Arctic, then the United States is in trouble. Russia possesses more than 40 icebreakers and plans to build more, with a goal of 13 heavy-duty icebreakers in operation by 2035. China recently acquired its second, and first domestically built, icebreaker and has aspirations for a nuclear-powered variant. By contrast, the United States has one aged heavy icebreaker and one medium version in operation. While there are plans to build six more (including three heavy icebreakers at an estimated total cost of $2.6–2.95 billion), funding is largely limited to the first one and it will not be available until 2023 or 2024. Unlike past fears that the United States was on the wrong side of a bomber gap, missile gap, or the dreaded mine-shaft gap, an icebreaker gap does indeed exist.
Most analysts who warn about the gap distinguish the Coast Guard’s role — which operates U.S. icebreakers and is part of the Department of Homeland Security in peacetime —from the Department of Defense mission set. Yet placing the icebreaker discussion alongside threats from Russia and China makes an implicit or explicit connection between icebreakers and U.S. military vulnerability.
The Consequences of an Icebreaker Gap
Thankfully for Washington, the consequences of this icebreaker gap for U.S. defense are often misunderstood or overstated. First, many of the specific military challenges that China or Russia might pose in the Arctic are independent of icebreakers and best dealt with in other ways. These include denying the United States access to the region, missile strikes against the homeland, the ability to move forces from the homeland, and demonstrating U.S. strength against challenges.
It is not clear how Russia or China would leverage icebreakers to exclude the United States from the region, or how the United States would utilize icebreakers to overcome such attempts. Take the concern of Russia denying access along the Northern Sea Route (setting aside the limited trans-Arctic shipping to date and modest future projections). The Russian ability to do this stems primarily from their growing missile, air, and surveillance capabilities deployed within their own territory. As Mathieu Boulègue observes, the Russian Northern Fleet will likely be able to perform some sea denial missions “at a limited operational tempo.” Yet “the majority of its assets are not Arctic-specific, operating beyond the region and in other strategic directions.” Increasing the numbers of U.S. icebreakers would not overcome the Russian shore-based area-denial challenge. In the event of a crisis, naval surface vessels operating behind slow-moving icebreakers would be, Andreas Kuersten notes, “sitting ducks for aerial, undersea, and shore-based enemy forces.”
Icebreakers would play a marginal role in countering other military challenges to the United States emerging from the region. Missiles fired from the Russian Arctic toward the United States would traverse over the Arctic. The status of what the DoD terms the “aging North Warning System” is a greater concern from this perspective than a lack of icebreakers. Similarly, while Russia’s icebreakers are important for its Northern Fleet’s ability to operate in and through the Arctic, the number of U.S. icebreakers has little bearing on this. Addressing Russia’s ability to project power into the North Atlantic, the DoD Arctic strategy focuses on other capabilities. These include cooperation with Great Britain and Norway on P-8 patrols, NATO air policing missions from Iceland, and a recognition that establishment of Joint Force Command Norfolk helps to protect the North Atlantic sea lines of communication to Europe.
Nuclear weapons remain a perennial problem, but their strategic value is little affected by the relative number of icebreakers. The 2019 DoD annual report on China worries that Chinese civilian research — presumably some of which would be undertaken by icebreakers — could support efforts to deploy “submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks.” Turning to Russia, the bulk of its naval nuclear deterrent capability is based in the Kola Peninsula. Much of Russia’s military activity in the Arctic is dedicated to defending this capability. As Austin Long and Brendan Green show, during the Cold War the United States relied on a combination of sensors, information processing, submarines, and other anti-submarine warfare assets to track Soviet nuclear-powered submarines armed with ballistic missiles (SSBNs). To be sure, technology has not stood still. Yet tracking Russian and Chinese SSBNs in or in transit to the Arctic today would involve a variety of U.S. capabilities beyond or already with access to the Arctic. If anything, diminishing sea ice might undermine the ability of SSBNs to remain hidden. More generally, the U.S. has relied on its nuclear arsenal for decades to deter nuclear threats. It is unclear why Russia or China possessing more icebreakers would undermine that deterrent.
Others have argued that U.S. icebreakers are necessary to signal resolve. For instance, Sabrina Shankman reports that more than a dozen polar and military experts concluded that “if a rival state decided to encroach on the U.S. exclusive economic zone . . . or step up a military show of force,” then the “presence — or absence — of an icebreaker could . . . be a telling message of strength or weakness.” Presumably, though, a U.S. ability to respond with more lethal subsurface or aerial assets would constitute a telling message.
Second, the implications of relative numbers of icebreakers look different when considering the vastly different Arctic contexts, particularly for the United States and Russia. According to the Arctic Institute, Russia has roughly 24,140 kilometers of coastline and two million inhabitants in the Arctic. The Economist highlighted that, all told, Russia has “at least half of the Arctic in terms of area, coastline, population and probably mineral wealth.” The Russian economy depends heavily on oil and natural gas, including from the Arctic, for its federal budget and exports. As noted, a sizeable portion of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent is based in the Arctic. Russian interests dictate a large number of icebreakers. By comparison, the United States has roughly 4,057 kilometers (2,521 miles) of Arctic shoreline and approximately 68,000 people living in the Alaskan Arctic. Oil and gas extraction, even when including the non-Artic portion, makes up a very small percentage of the U.S. economy. The U.S. nuclear triad is not dependent upon basing or SSBN patrols in the Arctic.
A third problem with focusing solely on counts of U.S. capabilities is that it ignores the role of U.S. allies and partners. Seven of the eight Arctic nations are either NATO allies or NATO enhanced opportunities partners (six of which have some icebreaking capacity). Non-Arctic allies, such as the United Kingdom, have interests and assets relevant to the region as well. These states’ capabilities and geographic locations shape the Arctic security environment. For example, Canada currently operates two heavy and four medium icebreakers and the Norwegian Armed Forces’ Joint Headquarters is located in the Arctic. Rebecca Pincus explains how, “carefully calibrated,” the “NATO-Russia Council could be a useful forum for dialogue on security topics in the Arctic.” The contribution of specific allies and partners will no doubt be more relevant to some problems than others. Even if they are not able to directly contribute to a particular issue, allies and partners can free up U.S. time and resources to focus elsewhere. They can also help improve situational awareness and manage tensions more broadly to minimize dangers and create opportunities in and near the North American and European Arctic.
Finally, icebreakers do not give states the ability to claim resources that will become available as climate change leads to less ice coverage. “Most Arctic territory and resources are solidly within the jurisdictions of Arctic states,” writes Kuersten. This is not the 19th century, when prospectors or military forces could stake claims to new territory. For example, Douglas Porch recounts how preoccupation with “effective occupation” led French military forces in Africa to sacrifice basic prudence in a “desire to steal a march on international competition.” There should be no rush — and is no need — to repeat these mistakes. Indeed, the Pentagon’s recent Arctic strategy notes that even “Russia has generally followed international law and procedure in establishing the limits of its extended continental shelf.”
To be sure, icebreakers are necessary to access polar areas even as ice cover diminishes. They are an important element of Arctic sovereignty as a result. However, the number that other countries possess does not affect the number that the United States requires to provide access to its exclusive economic zone. It is also unlikely that a country would use icebreakers to stake a claim to the U.S. Arctic. If it did, capabilities other than icebreakers would be better suited to dislodging them should diplomacy fail.
A Better Way to Think About Arctic Defense
As the United States approaches the potential of competition extending to the Arctic, it should place the region in a broader geopolitical context, consider a broader set of tools to advance U.S. interests, and carefully weigh the opportunity costs of pushing the Coast Guard to take on a central role in regional competition.
The best way to deal with China and Russia in the Arctic is to address disputes in their own backyards. Most of the pathways to a great-power crisis that could end up affecting the Arctic stem from crises outside the region. Engaging Russia and China elsewhere rather than focusing on specific capabilities in the Arctic, including icebreakers, will thus have salutary effects. The nominal Defense Department approach is to enhance a combat-credible forward presence in Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific. By deterring a conflict there, the logic goes, the Arctic is less likely to suffer negative “strategic spillover.” A fixation with the number of icebreakers, or ice-hardened vessels more generally, as part of competing with Russia or China in the Arctic can lead to unnecessary investments and divert military assets better utilized elsewhere. Alternative approaches might focus on some form of grand bargain or a more restrained U.S. foreign policy to alleviate tensions. The hope of this approach is that it might broadly reduce competition. That would then also have benefits for the Arctic.
Local defense challenges in the Arctic will remain, of course. Those should be addressed using political and economic diplomacy and refining military concepts and capabilities as necessary. Resisting the temptation to engage in numerical comparisons of icebreakers will help avoid alarmist views that may contribute to tensions and, at worst, the militarization of the region if the Pentagon deploys new resources in response to that perceived vulnerability. Other concerns, such as China’s interest in building airports in Greenland, are best dealt with by diplomatic, information, and economic tools rather than military platforms (though trying to buy Greenland probably isn’t the best approach). Even if a larger defense role in the Arctic is warranted, the United States should focus first on developing concepts for existing assets, determining what infrastructure requires modernization, and carefully examining how initiatives elsewhere can benefit regional security and minimize challenges emerging from the region.
As the climate changes, human activity in the Arctic (and Antarctic) will increase. There is a need for additional icebreakers to augment the Coast Guard’s law enforcement, search and rescue, disaster response, situational awareness, and scientific support missions, among others. Indeed, “polar icebreakers support 9 of the Coast Guard’s 11 statutory missions.” The only two not currently supported are “illegal drug interdiction and undocumented migrant interdiction.” Many of these tasks clearly advance U.S. national security.
But placing icebreakers in a central defense role comes with opportunity costs. If the United States does field multiple new icebreakers, those ships may find defense missions taking up more and more of their time. As a result, they will be less able to support the myriad of homeland security and important scientific missions they will be increasingly called upon to perform. It is worth noting the Coast Guard identified a need for six new icebreakers in 2013 (and gaps in support for polar missions in 2010), before the public discussion in Washington shifted to the return of great-power competition broadly and in the Arctic specifically. Coast Guard polar security cutters will have plenty to do without additional tasks to offset a perceived military vulnerability arising from Russian and Chinese icebreakers.
Paul C. Avey is assistant professor for political science at Virginia Tech. He is the author of Tempting Fate: Why Nonnuclear States Confront Nuclear Opponents (Cornell University Press). Avey was a 2018–2019 Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow based at the United States Department of Defense. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.