The icebreaker gap

Because I have a Google News alert tagged for “icebreakers,” I get lots of links to stories about Russia’s fleet. Yesterday, it was “Russia to build world’s largest nuclear icebreaker,” “Russian icebreaker sets out for expedition” and “Baltiysky Zavod Wins Behemoth Icebreaker Contract.”

(The news alert also delivers links about icebreakers for meetings, but that’s another story.)

The links are a reflection of the importance that Russia puts on these powerful and rugged ships. After all, it has more Arctic coastline than any other nation and so it has the most icebreakers, as well as the only ones with nuclear power. Now, with climate change and rapidly melting summer ice in the Arctic, Russia and other Arctic nations are busy exploring, studying, surveying and laying claims to Arctic territory.

Russia is particularly aggressive on the Arctic front. In 2007, a Russian mini-sub deposited a titanium flag on the seafloor under the North Pole to symbolically lay its claim to the Lomonosov Ridge, which Russia says is directly connected its continental shelf. A Russian think-tank has even suggested that the Arctic Ocean be renamed the Russian Ocean.

It’s hard to get consistent numbers for the size of Russia’s icebreaker fleet, but it’s around 20, with six nuclear powered. And as the Google headlines attest, Russia is pushing ahead to build even bigger, more powerful icebreakers.

Maybe it’s a legacy of the Cold War, but it’s impossible to avoid a comparison with the U.S. polar icebreaker fleet. Russia has or will soon have almost two dozen; we have three, only one of which is operational. One of the other two, the Polar Star, is being refurbished, and the third, the Polar Sea, is slated to be scrapped after parts are robbed from it for the Polar Star.

Talk about an icebreaker gap.

So why don’t we have more of these all-purpose polar vessels? (We even have to charter a Russian icebreaker to help resupply our McMurdo Base in the Antarctic.) Clearly the Arctic is heating up – in all ways – and the importance of our maritime presence in this strategic and resource-rich area is growing accordingly.

The answer is budget. It is commonly estimated that a new polar icebreaker would cost about $1 billion. That’s a chunk of change for sure, but with annual military budgets in the $600-$850 billion range, you’d think a billion now and then could be designated for something this critical. Maybe we could scale back the order for Littoral Combat Ships, which cost about $500 million each, and use that money for icebreakers. Do we really need 50 LCSes? That’s 25 icebreakers.

The Coast Guard has recently added money to its proposed budgets for the planning and construction of an icebreaker, but we’re a long ways from seeing a launch. By the time we do, the Arctic may have already melted. 

About the author

Bruce Buls

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).

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