Icebreakers for the Arctic should be based in our Arctic state

Amid rising Arctic traffic and tensions, Alaska is the right location for ice-capable U.S. vessels

The U.S. Coast Guard’s medium polar icebreaker, the Healy, as seen in October 2018. New icebreakers must be positioned in Alaska, where they are most needed, Sullivan writes. (Courtesy NyxoLyno Cangemi/U.S. Coast Guard)
The U.S. Coast Guard’s medium polar icebreaker, the Healy, as seen in October 2018. New icebreakers must be positioned in Alaska, where they are most needed, Sullivan writes. (Courtesy NyxoLyno Cangemi/U.S. Coast Guard)
Posted October 5, 2020 at 6:00am

As ice continues to recede in the Bering Sea — stretching between Alaska’s Seward Peninsula and Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula — we in Alaska, the only Arctic state in the U.S, are witnessing an increase in ships passing through the area. Indeed, maritime traffic north of the Bering Strait has increased 128 percent since 2008. Some, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have predicted that this narrow stretch of sea is poised to become the next Suez Canal, and Putin says Russia will control it.

Coinciding with the increase in maritime traffic is an alarming increase in Russian military activity in the Arctic. Just a few weeks ago, three Russian warships and two support vessels and a nuclear submarine conducted joint missile drills in our commercial fishing waters, harassing our fishing boats. There has also been a significant increase in Russian bombers — four of which participated in the recent military exercise — entering the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone. It’s clear that the Arctic, with its vast natural resources as well as strategic location, is becoming an increasingly contested area.

Is America, one of eight Arctic nations, equipped to handle this increase in traffic and activity through our waters? No — not yet, at least.

Our Coast Guard, the lead agency for projecting American power and interests in the region, has just one operational heavy icebreaker and one aging medium polar icebreaker, the Healy, a vessel that recently caught fire and had to cancel all of its Arctic operations. Russia, on the other hand, has a fleet of more than 50 icebreakers, and China, a nation far from the Arctic Circle but that calls itself a “near Arctic” state, is expected to surpass our icebreaking capacity by 2025.

The disparity is alarming, but the federal government is finally waking up, with some firm jostling from Congress.

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I secured a provision in the defense policy bill two years ago authorizing six new icebreakers. Working with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, we were able to appropriate funds for the first, and contracts were recently awarded for the first three. And last year, I introduced the Strategic Arctic Naval Focus Act to establish U.S. policy on deploying naval capabilities in the Arctic, including detailed plans and deadlines for infrastructure and systems to support new vessels in the region.

This sizable investment and execution of policy will amount to a sea change in the Coast Guard’s Arctic operability, but our work is only just beginning.

 We must make sure that some of America’s new icebreakers are home-ported in Alaska, where they are most needed, not 2,800 miles from the Arctic Circle —roughly the distance between Maine and Idaho. The Healy, which I mentioned earlier, resides in Seattle. Departing from Seattle, one of these new icebreakers would take eight days just to reach the Bering Strait, let alone the actual scene of the crisis. It is not difficult to imagine how placing all of our icebreakers so far from the region they are intended to serve could pose devastating consequences for life, our national security and the environment.

Unlike China, the United States doesn’t need to accept the dubious claim of being a “near Arctic” state. After all, we have abundant territory in the Arctic — in Alaska.  And we are making significant progress on a series of new deep-water ports in the Arctic, the first being planned for Nome.

But if we choose to position all of our most crucial ice-capable assets thousands of miles away, in Seattle, we are, for all intents and purposes, relegating ourselves to “near Arctic” status.

This would be a serious strategic mistake and an abdication of our duty to lead in the Arctic, a message I delivered recently in a conversation with national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

The right path is unmistakable, and I believe the Trump administration recognizes it. The Coast Guard must home-port ice-capable vessels at ports within America’s Arctic — within Alaska.

Sen. Dan Sullivan is a Republican representing the state of Alaska. He is a member of the Senate Armed Services and Commerce committees.