As the Arctic melts, countries are racing to expand their icebreaker fleets to stay relevant in a warmer world. Who has the icebreakers, who doesn’t, and why have they become so important?
“Arctic strategy” is the new buzzword being tossed about by nations intent on taking advantage of melting ice in the Arctic. While a melting Arctic has many downsides, it also opens up vast new territories for countries to claim, fight over and exploit. Key to these activities is the humble icebreaker.
In 1970 the US had 8 heavy icebreakers. Today it has just one.
Arctic ambitions amount to nothing without icebreakers. A melting Arctic requires more icebreakers than ever before to open up more trade routes, keep shipping lanes open in the winter and carve new paths for military adventures, oil drilling, etc.
Heavy icebreakers are able to break through six, or even ten feet (three meters) of ice.
Russia Expands And Fortifies Arctic Territories
Russia has perhaps the most advanced Arctic strategy and certainly the largest icebreaker fleet. Boasting a fleet of 37 icebreakers (.pdf), in 2015 Russia’s President Putin announced plans to strategically pivot military and commercial resources towards the Arctic. Russia’s Arctic push dovetails with their expansionist naval strategy and may be part of a strategy to rebalance geopolitical relationships. Russia’s Arctic plans call for:
- The development of a new fleet of icebreakers
- Refurbished air bases and bulked-up supplies for Russia’s Northern Fleet
- New claims on vast new Arctic territories rich in oil and gas
The US Has An Arctic Strategy And Icebreaker Gap
Though the US has put little emphasis on Arctic matters in the past, the tide may be turning as new initiatives take shape, including:
- The Commandant of the US Coast Guard seeks a new heavy icebreaker by 2023 to replace the USCGC Healy, the only working heavy icebraker the US has in service
- New, more accurate Arctic maps and charts are being developed by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency
- The US military will develop a plan to support US Arctic objectives, once they are defined
Others Lust For The Arctic Too
As the Arctic melts, others are considering how to address the new commercial, military and political landscape it presents. The European Union, NATO and others are working to define new Arctic strategies, while Arctic conservationists struggle to influence developments.
China has telegraphed its intent to be an Arctic player too. In 2015 a convoy of Chinese navy ships passed through the Bering Strait for the first time ever, taking military and political analysts by surprise.
To learn about about what constitutes a sovereign claim on Arctic seabeds and territory, read our piece about who gets to claim the Arctic as the North Pole melts.