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The United States needs more icebreakers. The country has a growing national interest in the Arctic, and its relations with Russia, a dominant force in the region, are increasingly chilly. Yet Washington is woefully unprepared for the Arctic challenge when it comes to one crucial tool: the mighty nuclear-powered vessels that would support its economic and security objectives in the high north.
Because of a receding icecap, the Arctic is becoming increasingly accessible for exploration and transit. For the United States and other Arctic nations, this development offers significant new opportunities, from previously unavailable shipping routes to yet untapped natural resources. It also comes with fresh risks—it’s a new arena for potential geopolitical competition—and additional responsibilities: managing the remote but increasingly crowded space.
In all these respects, nuclear icebreakers—that is, ships that are powered by a nuclear reactor and designed to clear paths through the ice for other ships to follow—are indispensable. Nuclear propulsion is extremely efficient, allowing such an icebreaker to go decades before it requires refueling. (A conventional U.S. Navy destroyer that deploys to the Arctic runs out of fuel by the time it reaches Alaska.) Nuclear icebreakers are also more capable than conventional vessels of producing the thrust necessary for cleaving ten-foot-thick ice for sustained periods of time. A nuclear icebreaker on its toughest workday burns through a single pound of uranium, whereas a conventionally powered ship would require about a hundred tons of diesel for the same job.
In terms of both conventional and nuclear icebreakers, Russia is the world’s uncontested leader. It maintains a fleet of 40 ships and is currently the only country that has nuclear-powered icebreakers, with four such vessels of the heaviest class operating in the Arctic. Eleven more icebreakers are in development or planning stages, including the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker, scheduled for completion in 2017.
The United States, by contrast, has only two conventional icebreakers in service, and only one of them is suitable for sustained Arctic operations: the Coast Guard cutter Polar Star, which is tasked mostly with conducting scientific missions and supporting research in Antarctica. Moreover, the Polar Star is already nearly a decade past its planned retirement age. The United States urgently needs to develop a new icebreaker class and create the next-generation fleet of nuclear icebreakers and ice-hardened conventional ships to buttress its standing in the world’s crucial frontier region.
Until now, Washington’s policy toward the Arctic has been a lesser priority than pressing concerns in other parts of the world. But the Arctic will need to start taking precedence if the United States wants to become a leader in the region’s development and defend its interests there.
First, a stronger icebreaker fleet is essential for taking full advantage of the shipping opportunities opening up in the Arctic. New transit routes across the top of the globe promise to slash fuel consumption of cargo ships by up to one-half compared with the traditional East–West journey via the Suez Canal. Three new Arctic shipping routes are emerging: along Russia’s northern shoreline; directly across the North Pole (known as the Transpolar Sea Route); and through Arctic Canada (known as the Northwest Passage).
Trans-Arctic shipping routes (Milosz Reterski)
The Arctic’s receding ice makes nuclear-powered icebreakers more critical, not less. That’s because ice-free waters will remain a seasonal phenomenon. By 2030, fully navigable open water conditions—defined as ice coverage of less than ten percent—are expected to occur for short intervals of a month or two, peaking around September. Surrounding these intervals will be shoulder periods lasting up to five weeks, when ice covers ten to 40 percent of the water surface. As countries come to rely on the Arctic shipping routes, these shoulder periods, too, will see increased commercial traffic. In these periods in particular, nuclear-powered icebreakers will be necessary to ensure safe passage for all vessels.
Second, nuclear icebreakers would improve the U.S. ability to explore and extract energy from the region. The Arctic holds vast undiscovered hydrocarbon reserves, estimated at over eight billion barrels of natural gas liquids, 66 billion barrels of oil, and over 1,600 trillion cubic feet of gas, making the Arctic five times richer in hydrocarbons than the Pacific Ocean. The deposits located within the U.S. territorial zones alone could exceed $1 trillion in value. Nuclear-powered icebreakers would make it easier for exploration and extraction teams to access these resources and deliver them to market and would provide assistance and coordination in the case of accidents.
Third, as competition for natural resources accelerates, nuclear icebreakers would strengthen Washington’s hand when it comes to geopolitics and security. Although the primary U.S. objectives in the Arctic are deterring conflict and fostering international cooperation, Washington must remain ready to respond to any security challenges that could arise there in the future. A recent report by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence warned that competition over the positioning of military forces in the Arctic could soon intensify, and Russia’s recent incursions into northern European airspace and territorial waters may be an indication of things to come. Already, bilateral military exercises have been canceled, and the U.S. Navy has simulated attacks on Russian submarines as part of its Arctic training exercises.
Moreover, Russia considers the Arctic a strategic priority and views its maritime territorial claims there through a military lens, not simply an economic one. In the midst of the standoff with the West over Ukraine this past April, Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted his commitment to “regain” and “qualitatively strengthen” Russia’s military positions in the Arctic. To that end, Moscow has established a new strategic command center for the region and has deployed its largest battle cruiser there. Building U.S. nuclear icebreakers, in combination with the development of maritime facilities north of the Aleutian Islands, would help Washington balance this advantage.
Nuclear-powered icebreakers would also extend the Arctic reach of the Aegis fleet—U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers capable of ballistic missile defense. The fleet must be able to quickly travel to any theater of operations, especially in light of the growing ballistic missile threat posed by China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Right now, Aegis cruisers can sustain only limited operations north of the Arctic Circle, but a U.S. Navy nuclear icebreaker would allow a true forward presence.
Fourth, nuclear icebreakers would become a major asset in search-and-rescue operations, the need for which may well increase. The arduous search for the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean shed light on the tremendous logistic challenges of conducting such operations outside major shipping lanes. Many intercontinental flights skirt the Arctic, and a few routes connecting Asia with North America fly directly over the North Pole. Meanwhile, with an increase in shipping through the Arctic Circle, the risks of something going amiss in the area only grow. Yet the United States remains unprepared for major search-and-recovery operations north of the Bering Strait, even though Washington took responsibility for nearly a million square miles of inhospitable ocean in a 2011 international treaty.
U.S. Arctic search-and-rescue assets are very limited. In the entire state of Alaska, the Coast Guard maintains a fleet of just six patrol boats and two cutters—all stationed south of the Aleutian Islands—and only around 15 helicopters dedicated to search and rescue. A nuclear-powered icebreaker, deployed on an extended basis to the Alaskan Arctic waters with two rescue helicopters, would provide a much-needed forward presence for operations and coordination.
It’s past time for the United States to close the icebreaker gap. Accomplishing this feat would require significant resources and effort, but this investment is certain to pay off in the long run. Although it costs more to build a nuclear icebreaker than a conventional vessel—and operating it would require an additional $1 billion over its lifetime—the greater sustained access to the Arctic that the United States would receive in return more than justifies the costs.
In the near term, the U.S. Navy should start by designing a new class of nuclear-powered icebreakers, with the goal of deploying the first one in the next decade. In the interim, the navy should increase its Arctic surface deployments using conventional icebreakers (borrowing them from Washington’s regional partners if necessary), in order to develop a deeper familiarity with such operations. To support the expanding icebreaker fleet, work should also begin on constructing a deep-draft port facility in northern Alaska.
Once the first nuclear-powered icebreaker is completed, it should be permanently deployed to the Alaskan Arctic under the joint operation of the Navy and the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard would be responsible for the traditional tasks related to search and rescue, patrolling, and sea lane management. The navy would provide the technical expertise for the operation of the nuclear reactor on the ship and, through its involvement in the mission, signal that Washington takes the Arctic Ocean seriously. Meanwhile, construction would start on the second and third nuclear-powered icebreakers, whose subsequent deployment would allow for a wider range of missions and greater flexibility in scheduling maintenance.
What’s clear is that as the stakes continue to rise, continuous inaction will prove disastrous in the long run. On the other hand, new nuclear-powered icebreakers would become the flagships of the United States’ strong naval presence in Arctic waters and a symbol of its position of power in the region.