Last Polar Icebreaker

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star is the U.S. last icebreaker capable of performing Arctic missions.

As polar ice caps recede, the Arctic Ocean continues to grow in strategic and economic significance. Retreating ice is opening up important new shipping routes and drawing attention to the Arctic’s vast reserves of precious metals, strategic minerals, 90 billion barrels of oil and nearly 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. With that much untapped wealth, nations in the region are scrambling to increase their presence there.

Despite the warming seas, ships known as icebreakers continue to play a vital role in the region. The vessels keep sea lanes from freezing over and answer distress calls from ice-trapped ships. Icebreakers are the most important asset a nation in the region can possess. More icebreakers mean more power.

By that metric, Russia dominates the Arctic. Moscow has more than 40 icebreakers, including six nuclear-powered ships capable of operating year round. By comparison, the United States Coast Guard has only one working, 40-year-old icebreaker. And Russia’s Arctic dominance doesn’t end there. It has six military bases, 13 air bases and 16 deep water ports. In comparison, the U.S. maintains one airfield on borrowed land in Greenland.

On Friday, amid great fanfare, Moscow launched yet another icebreaker, the Ivan Papanin. According to the state-run TASS news agency, the ship is intended to “carry out scientific research in the Arctic ice and, of course ... to reliably ensure the safety of our national interests there.” Note that this “research vessel” includes a portable anti-aircraft missile system, cruise missiles, an electronic warfare system and a helicopter launch pad. Conveniently, the ship’s launch was timed to another announcement that Moscow has found new data supporting earlier claims that it owns an area of the Arctic seabed the size of Western Europe.

Russia’s military buildup and attempted land grab in the Arctic should concern Americans. No one wants a return to Cold War tensions with Russia, but that nation’s push to dominate the Arctic Ocean and its rich resources should not go unchecked. We need a larger presence in the Arctic. Congress needs to authorize adequate funding for the Coast Guard to do that. A few years ago, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, explained it this way: “The highways of the Arctic are paved by icebreakers. Right now, the Russians have superhighways and we have dirt roads with potholes.”

— Robin Beres

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