As the ice disappears, the Arctic is increasingly busy. More ship traffic is pouring into northern shipping routes that are now open for longer periods at the same time that demand for oil and gas is rising. The dissolving ice has become less predictable, raising the risk of ships running aground and spilling oil or stranding cargo, crew and cruise passengers. There are also worries about illegal fishing and smuggling.
Even more profoundly, Arctic experts say icebreakers must fill a crucial military gap, bolstering the U.S. presence in a region where nations are jockeying for dominance.
It’s one thing to handle a ship running aground, a crisis in which countries would be expected to cooperate. It might be quite another if a rival state decided to encroach on the U.S. exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles offshore, or step up a military show of force. The presence — or absence — of an icebreaker could then be a telling message of strength or weakness, according to more than a dozen polar and military experts interviewed for this article.
Russia has stepped up its production of polar icebreakers to fulfill President Vladimir Putin’s vision of the Arctic as “the future” of Russia. China, Japan and South Korea are also constructing icebreakers.
“The reality is that the United States has ignored the Arctic,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., who has advocated for an expanded icebreaker fleet. “We have forfeited what will be the major sea route between Asia and Europe. Control of the ocean will be ceded to Russia and China.”
Should something happen to the Healy while on its Arctic mission, the options are grim. Other allies could help, but the first choice would be sending the Polar Star, which could be thousands of miles away, northward in relief.
“We’re the greatest maritime power in the world, and we’re just hoping that a ship built in the `70s can last,” said Heather Conley, a senior vice president focusing on the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonprofit policy research group.
Arctic melts, raising alarm bells
The Arctic became critical to U.S. national security during World War II, when it was an essential shipping route to supply the Soviet war effort against Hitler. In 1941, the year the U.S. entered the war, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote a note to his treasury secretary: “I want the world’s greatest icebreakers.”
By 1944, the year of D-Day, the U.S. had built seven icebreakers in a Los Angeles shipyard. Three were lent to the Soviets to break ice across the Arctic Ocean so the U.S. could deliver much-needed supplies. The others were used to support the construction of an airfield in Greenland. These ships would represent the peak of the United States’ ice-breaking prowess, and the biggest fleet in the world.
By the time Polar Star and the Polar Sea — both Polar-class heavy icebreakers — were built in the mid-1970s, the WWII-era icebreakers were showing their age. In the mid-1980s, the Coast Guard found that they needed to be replaced and recommended a fleet of four additional icebreakers.
Coast Guard Capt. Lawson Brigham was one of the authors of the 1984 report. “We got the process rolling and it was enough to get one ship,” — the Healy, in 2000 — “but by then the two Polar-class ships were 25 years old,” he said. “We should have started then to replace them.”
That never happened.
Meanwhile, a steady drumbeat of studies and reports by the Coast Guard, the National Academies of Sciences, the Congressional Research Service and other groups were finding that the icebreaker fleet was aging to a dangerous point, just as the need for the ships was increasing.
The alarm bells were particularly strong in 2007. Arctic sea ice levels declined to record lows — 38 percent below the average since the late 1970s. A National Academies of Sciences report that year found the Polar Star and the Polar Sea “are becoming inefficient to operate … and technological systems are becoming increasingly obsolete. This situation has created major mission readiness issues.”
A few vocal advocates in Congress — including the delegations from Alaska, Washington and California — raised the issue at every opportunity, but the scales didn’t tilt.
It always came down to money.
“We are in a five-nation race in the Arctic, and running fifth.”
“I am concerned the Coast Guard does not have the resources and assets it needs to carry out increased operations in this region,” Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said in a July 2008 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. “We are in a five-nation race in the Arctic, and running fifth.”
That began to change during President Barack Obama’s administration. Alice Hill, who served as senior counsel to the Department of Homeland Security secretary from 2009 to 2013, said “icebreakers were a pretty constant theme” during her time there, but no one knew how to pay for them amid competing priorities.
The Obama administration took initial steps toward funding a new icebreaker, culminating in $175 million in the 2017 budget. But that wasn't enough to begin designing and building a type of ship that hasn’t been constructed in the United States for more than 40 years.
Uncertainty for the Coast Guard
When Trump released the first budget proposal of his presidency in March 2017, it included a major boost to defense spending, with one notable exception: a $1.3 billion cut to the Coast Guard to fund a wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
Congress ultimately restored the Coast Guard’s funding, and Trump has more recently telegraphed support for the Coast Guard. In particular, Trump has praised its response to hurricanes, though he has baffled some by referring repeatedly over the past year to the Coast Guard “brand” and how it’s improving. “There’s no brand that’s gone up like the Coast Guard over the last couple of years because of what you’ve done with the hurricanes in this country,” Trump said last month in a Thanksgiving teleconference with the military.