THERE’S a race across the Arctic, and the United States is losing.
A half-century after racing the Russians to the moon, the U.S. is barely suiting up in the international race to secure interests in the Arctic. Russia, Canada and other nations are investing heavily. We are behind and falling further back.
A lot of people in Washington, D.C., still think about the United States as an Atlantic nation. Those of us on the West Coast know we are an Asia-Pacific nation. Too few realize we are also an Arctic nation, an oversight that has translated to a failure to invest in our national interests in the region.
Global warming is breaking up the Arctic ice pack. This melting has enormous environmental consequences for the entire world. It also has significant strategic and economic implications for the United States.
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To secure our interests in the Arctic, we need to make sure our ships — both military and commercial — can traverse the icy seas. To do that, they need a fleet of special ships equipped to break the ice to establish safe shipping lanes.
An independent study commissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard found that the U.S. needs three heavy icebreakers and three medium icebreakers to meet its minimum statutory missions.
But we only have one of each in operation today. And our heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, is already seven years past its 30-year service life.
The Arctic is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the Northwest Passage. Just four years ago, two German ships followed a Russian icebreaker to complete the first commercial shipment across the Arctic. Last year, with the warmest Arctic summer on record, 46 ships made the crossing.
Estimates show that commerce through the Arctic may increase eightfold to 30 million tons of cargo by 2020. The appeal is clear: The Arctic route is thousands of miles shorter than traditional options, saving a lot of time and money.
Other countries are getting ready.
Russia has 22 government-owned icebreakers and just started building another that will be the world’s largest. In a clear statement to the international community about its intentions, the Russians used one of their nuclear icebreakers and a submarine to plant a Russian flag at the North Pole in 2007.
China, which does not even have a direct Arctic link, is now building its second Arctic icebreaker. Sweden and Finland have four each.
The Coast Guard’s two icebreakers do not meet the minimum capability we need.
Under tight budgetary restraints, it is not surprising the Coast Guard is hesitant to request the $1 billion it would need to build a new heavy-duty icebreaker. These budget requests can crowd out other priorities.
Last year, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, and I added a requirement to a Coast Guard authorization bill requiring an analysis of the best way to meet its icebreaking needs. The Coast Guard presented that report last month, and it offers a way forward.
The analysis shows the Coast Guard can rehabilitate and reactivate the heavy-duty USCGC Polar Sea icebreaker, currently sitting in mothballs in a Seattle shipyard, at a fraction of the cost of building a new icebreaker now.
Congress needs to take advantage of this opportunity by ordering the rehabilitation of the Polar Sea and immediately start planning to build the next generation icebreaker fleet.
The consequences of waiting are not abstract. We are already suffering the consequences of our failure to invest in an icebreaking fleet.
It is not the story of the United States to sit idly by while other countries take advantage of new opportunities. That should not be the case in the Arctic. The administration and Congress need to rejuvenate our icebreaker fleet and show we are ready to live up to our status as an Arctic nation.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.