Key point: Moscow is building many more icebreakers than Washington has.
Recently, the state of the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet has been making waves in Washington, DC. Republicans have suggested diverting funding from the Coast Guard’s initiative to acquire a new heavy icebreaker to the border wall.
This comes at a time where Russia and China are investing more and more money into the Arctic capabilities of their militaries, including icebreakers. But what is Russia’s overall Arctic strategy? How do icebreakers fit into that picture and enable them to project power into the Arctic, and what do they stand to gain?
The current state of the relative size of icebreaker fleets is best summed up in one diagram put out by the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Waterways and Ocean Policy. There are some key points to be seen here. Only the United States and Russia operate “heavy” icebreakers, indicated in black. Those icebreakers have the highest amount of power available to them, allowing them to operate in the thickest ice sheets.
Of those heavy icebreakers, America only has one operational. Russia, on the other hand, has two operational with four more in refit. Once refits are complete, Russian heavy icebreakers will outnumber the American ones 3:1, providing Russia with better capability to run operations in heavy ice packs.
America’s only heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star is also often tasked to support international and U.S. operations on the South Pole. During these operations, the Polar Star ran into multiple operational difficulties due to its age: the USCGC Polar Star first entered service in the 1970s.
Russia’s fleet of heavy icebreakers are significantly younger than the American ships, entering service in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Russia also fields a far larger fleet of light and medium icebreakers, although these cannot handle thicker ice and mostly are used to keep trading lanes open to northern ports such as Arkhangelsk.
In addition to its already formidable fleet, Russia is planning to build some even bigger icebreakers. The “Leader”-class (LK-110Ya/Pr. 10510) of icebreakers is expected to weigh somewhere around 71,000 tons, which would make it by far the heaviest icebreaker in the world. To compare, the USCGC Polar Star weighs only around 10,000 tons.
The “Leader” would be powered by 110 MW nuclear power plant (hence the 110 in the designation) and be charged with being one of many ships keeping the North Sea route open.
While the “Leader” class is still only on paper at the moment, Russia is nearly done with the “Arktika”-class (LK-60Ya/Pr. 22220) of heavy nuclear icebreakers. These ships also are massive, weighing in at around 33,000 tons. The new Arktika-class ships are expected to undergo sea trials at the end of 2019.
Nominally, the purpose of these ships is to maintain and develop the Northern Sea Route as a cheaper alternative to going around India and through the Suez Canal. This is very important by itself as it gives Russia control over a major sea route that is becoming more accessible as a result of climate change. If Russia wants to reap the benefits of this route, it must invest money in ships to keep it open.
The Russian government has delegated control over this sea route to Rosatom, the state corporation which is overseeing the development and operation of the new and current nuclear-powered icebreakers. As such, Rosatom will grant foreign ships the right to traverse this route.
However, the Northern Sea Route isn’t the only part of Russian Arctic policy. Russian outlets have framed the “growing militarization of the Arctic” as an important issue, and the Russian military is definitely doing their part on that front, reopening many Arctic bases.
The exact purposes of these bases appear to be mostly to sit on Russian resource claims in the region, but according to a Reuters article, the movement of surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles to these remote Arctic bases gives them a strong Area Denial/Anti-Access Capability.
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Resupply to such bases requires a large icebreaker fleet. If the United States or Canada wishes to operate additional bases up north to match Russia’s presence, the icebreaker fleet will likely need expansion to match the upkeep.
From this, we can see that the lower numbers of American icebreakers aren’t as serious of a strategic flaw as the numbers alone may suggest. Russia has far more missions for their icebreakers, so it needs more of them. However, the U.S. icebreaker fleet still needs increased numbers to accomplish the tasks it needs to do. Hence, having one heavy icebreaker shared between all polar missions in the Arctic and Antarctic is a big stretch on the U.S. Coast Guard’s fleet.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues. This first appeared in August 2018.