While it should have been an easy choice, the U.S. Coast Guard’s decision to base three large icebreakers in Seattle is still a tremendous development.
The first of three new “Polar Security” cutters is expected to enter service by 2024. This involves hundreds of jobs and boosts the region’s maritime ecosystem. It also increases Seattle’s role as a hub for Arctic services and support, a field that will grow as warming temperatures open the region to more research and commercial activity.
Seattle has been the base for the Coast Guard’s “heavy” icebreakers since 1976, but that’s now down to one outdated ship, the Polar Star. It’s been nursed along by scavenging parts from its defunct sister ship. Seattle is also home to a “medium” polar icebreaker, the Healy.
U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray have long championed the need for new ships capable of operating through heavy ice in polar regions.
“The United States needs to up its investment in its ability to manage the waters in the Arctic,” Cantwell said.
Seattle and the Puget Sound region must now ensure they’re ready to accommodate not just the three Polar Security ships but any additional ships that may be forthcoming. Still awaiting funding and home port decisions are three mid-size icebreakers sought by the Coast Guard.
Longer term, Seattle also has an opportunity to grow its cluster of expertise in Arctic navigation and support services, drawing on the knowledge of Coast Guard veterans and its long history supporting polar operations and the North Pacific fishing industry.
America as a whole will benefit from having these new Coast Guard ships increase the nation’s presence in the Arctic. With ice melting and other nations seeking to exploit the Arctic’s resources and shipping potential, the U.S. desperately needs more tools to assert sovereignty, provide aid, support commerce and assist scientific research missions in this new frontier.
A recent strategic analysis by the Coast Guard said geopolitics and climate change have “elevated the region’s prominence as a strategically competitive space.” Russia and China declared the Arctic a national priority and invested in equipment to expand their influence in the region.
While the U.S. is participating in various Arctic organizations, “it is the only Arctic State that has not made similar investments in ice-capable surface maritime security assets,” the analysis said. “This limits the ability of the Coast Guard, and the nation, to credibly uphold sovereignty or respond to contingencies in the Arctic. It also diminishes America’s position as the partner of choice for allies and partner nations.”
Seattle should welcome these new icebreakers, which can’t come soon enough.