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In pursuit of icebreakers: the U. S. is far behind Russia in the Arctic

The melting Arctic ice is opening up excellent prospects for easy navigation along the Northern Sea Route and is giving access to a huge stock of mineral resources: as much as 22% of all hydrocarbons and lots of other minerals, according to experts. Everybody would love to get that wealth, but the favorites in this race are the five Arctic nations: Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark.

Last year, the Arctic recorded the smallest ever ice extent. The temperature there is rising so quickly that this spring the U.S. Navy was forced to cut short its annual exercises because of melting ice. The ice in the Arctic is melting so quickly that, according to experts, there will be no more ice there in 2050.

Since the 1970s, the area controlled by the Arctic coast guards has grown by a territory equivalent to 45% of the United States.

In 2007, for the first time ever, the northern route got free of ice. This route is 30% shorter for those wishing to travel from Europe to Asia and is much safer than the pirates-controlled southern routes. In 2009, just five ships travelled that way. In 2013, as many as 71 ships were seen sailing in the Arctic. In 2012, the cargo traffic in the area amounted to 1.25 million tons. This cannot be compared to the cargo traffic of the Suez Canal, but experts believe that in 2030 the Northern Sea Route will transfer by far much more cargos.

So, we are not surprised at Vladimir Putin’s wish to make the Bering Strait the second Suez Canal. Nor will we be surprised to see a new, really cold, war in the region. And as of now the United States is the loser in that war – at least, this is what many Americans think.

Not only states but also companies are looking forward to the opening of new routes in the Arctic. The Chinese COSCO has already expressed its interest in that region. Iceless Arctic will be a fertile soil not only for industry but also for tourism. This year, for the first time ever, Crystal Serenity carried as many as one thousand passengers from Anchorage to New York, with the cheapest tickets costing as much as $21,500. The Arctic is becoming popular not only for travelers but also for yachtsmen. And a group of Russian and Norwegian yachtsmen told Newsweek that they were surprised that nobody stopped or checked them when they were sailing in the U.S. Arctic waters.

There can be no Arctic without icebreakers

Today we are unable to get the riches of the Arctic without icebreakers. So, the key priority for the Arctic nations is the size of their Arctic fleets. One of Barack Obama’s misses is that he has done almost nothing in the Arctic. He remembered it only last year. We can’t say that everything is lost for the Americans there, but the lag is too big and will require lots of time and effort to be overcome.

Unlike the Americans, the Russians are very active in the Arctic. According to U.S. sources, in Mar 2015 they held an exercise involving as many as 38,000 men, 50 ships and 110 planes.

Foreign Affairs quotes the Council on Foreign Relations as saying that Russia gives a strategic priority to its military presence in the Arctic.

Obama has decided to counteract: he has begun to enlarge the U.S. Arctic fleet by building new ships and upgrading the existing ones. On Mar 24, 2016, the U.S. Senate voted to assign as much as $2 billion for a new icebreaker – the first U.S. icebreaker in almost 20 years: the last icebreaker, Healy, was built in the 1990s.

The Congress approved the Senate’s vote. So, now the Americans have money for a new modern icebreaker. The advocates of high activity in the Arctic were happy, but the skeptics warned them that one needs not only a lot of money but also a lot of time for building an icebreaker. It will take the Americans a decade to build their new icebreaker, while the Russians are already building several such vessels.

The U.S. Coast Guard say they need at least six icebreakers for effective activities in the Arctic and Antarctic: three ships that can break 6.5 meters of ice and three ships for breaking 2.5-meter-thick ice. As of today, the Americans have just two icebreakers: Healy, which can break just 1.2 meters of ice and Polar Star, one of the most powerful non-nuclear, vessels in the world.

“It’s unfortunate that our nation, an Arctic nation, has fallen so far behind in this capability, particularly, as the Arctic enters an extremely dynamic geopolitical and environmental period of rapid change,” retired Adm. David Titley, who set up the U.S. Navy’s task force on climate change, told Foreign Policy. “Icebreaking capacity is a very good hedging strategy, and our capacity is very limited,” he said.

Of course, a couple of billions will make the U.S. Coast Guard’s life much easier, but one icebreaker costs no less than $1 billion and takes at least 10 years to be built. Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard spent as much as $2 billion out of its $10 billion budget to keep its existing icebreaker afloat. So, no surprise that in the coming decade, the Americans are planning to spend as much as $15 billion on the Arctic.

The number of ongoing icebreaker projects is the indicator of a nation’s ambitions in the Arctic. Russia is building at least ten ships for that region, including several nuclear icebreakers.

On June 10, 2016, the Russians launched Ilya Muromets 21180 diesel electric icebreaker. It took them just a year to build that huge vessel. Just a couple of weeks later, they launched one more ship, the world’s biggest nuclear icebreaker, Arktika – a vessel having displacement of 33,500 tons, propulsion of 81,000 hp and ability to break three meters of ice. The next are Siberia and Ural icebreakers to be commissioned in 2018 and 2020, respectively.

Though not an Arctic nation, the Chinese are also very active in this field. Recently, they launched their second icebreaker and are already building the third one. The Finns are building the world’s first LNG-powered icebreaker. The South Koreans are building a whole series of tankers for carrying LNG via the Arctic. Norway, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Chile and Australia are also in the race. And even Argentina is sparing no money to upgrade its only icebreaker.

Highway and country road

Today, all the nations having icebreakers are lagging behind the existing requirements but the Americans are the last in this race. During WWII, they had seven heavy icebreakers, now they have just one Polar Star. The second one, Polar Sea, broke down in 2010.

According to Politico, Russia is in the vanguard with 41 existing and 11 projected icebreakers.

For a long time, the Congress was deaf to the Coast Guard’s pleas to give it money for new icebreakers. Last year, Obama visited the north and felt the need to build more icebreakers. In early 2016, the Coast Guard asked $150 million for drafting two icebreaker projects.

But the problem is that the new two ships will just replace the existing two, so, the Coast Guard’s dream to have at least six icebreakers is far from coming true.

“We're very mindful that, as vulnerable as we are today, our vulnerability will only increase over time,” Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Zukunft said in an interview to FP.

Of course, in both the Senate and the Congress there are people who have long been blowing the whistle. One of them, Senator from Alaska Lisa Murkowski regrets that the U.S. authorities do not give icebreakers any priority.

In 2015, she formed a Congress group for defending the interests of northern states. In interview to Newsweek, one more Alaska Senator Dan Sallivan compared the Russian and U.S. Arctic fleets: «In the Arctic, icebreakers can be compared to a highway. The Russians now move to the North, on superhighway, and we are on country roads with potholes».

In contrast, Senator from California Duncan Hunter is afraid that even if given money, the Coast Guard will not be able to keep several icebreakers afloat. Hence, he suggests giving this task to the Pentagon.

But the Pentagon does not need icebreakers. It has nuclear submarines, which it can use in the Arctic whenever needed.

Admiral Titley retorts that submarines are not enough for controlling the region.

Is cooperation the only way-out?

In Canada, things are no much better, especially as, geographically and geopolitically, the Canadians have more responsibility for the Arctic. They are building their icebreakers jointly with the IMF, with their icebreaker budget totaling $37 billion. In the coming decade, they are planning to build an icebreaker worth some $1.2 billion. But they will start this project only when they finish building ships for their royal navy. Until then they are going to upgrade their only icebreaker so as to be able to use it for a decade more.

Both the Americans and the Canadians have one chance to improve the situation – to ask for support. They can apply to the Finns, who are now building over half of all icebreakers and who have enough shipyards for such projects. This year Finnish experts already met with their North American colleagues and offered a hand. Tero Vauraste, President and CEO of Arctia Group, says that he can build a heavy icebreaker for just $280 million – four times as cheap as any icebreaker in the United States or Canada. The Americans have not built icebreakers for already 20 years and have little practice in this business.

So, according to Vauraste, they were happy at his offer.

Murkowski believes that this is the only way for the Americans to get more icebreakers, while Zukunft points to both legal and political obstacles to such partnership. On top of that, this means loss of multi-billion contracts for U.S. shipbuilders, first of all, for Huntington Ingalls Industries, who is building 120-meter long National Security Cutters for the Coast Guard and who built the only U.S. icebreaker in 1997.

Sergey Manukov, specially for EADaily

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