The U.S. Congress should appropriate money to build new icebreakers.
ON a crisp November day 41 years ago, Champagne was cracked over the massive hull of the icebreaker Polar Star on the Seattle waterfront. The ship cranked up its 78,000-horsepower engines and churned off toward the Pacific Ocean. A few days later, it was joined by its sister icebreaker, the Polar Sea, also built at Seattle’s now-closed Lockheed shipyard.
That was the last time the United States built new heavy-class icebreakers. Since then, the government-owned icebreaker fleet has dwindled to just two working vessels, the medium-class Healy, primarily used for research, and the aging Polar Star — both based in Seattle. The Polar Sea is mothballed on the Seattle waterfront, potentially bound for the scrap heap.
That neglect exposes important strategic interests. Arctic ice has shrunk 13 percent each decade since the 1970s. Climate change, as President Obama said this week, poses national security threats.
For much of the year, icebreakers are the ships capable of exerting sovereignty in the U.S. territorial waters that stretch 200 miles off the Alaskan coast. Icebreakers operated by the U.S. Coast Guard are the United States’ eyes and ears, whether the issues are illegal fishing or rescue operations. Commercial vessel traffic in the Bering Strait has doubled since 1998.
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Meanwhile, Russia’s icebreaker fleet has grown to 40, including a new supersized icebreaker ominously called “50 Years of Victory.” Canada, Sweden and Finland have larger fleets than the United States. China expects a new icebreaker to come online in 2016.
The U.S. Coast Guard needs a more robust icebreaker fleet. In a 2010 study, the agency said it needs six heavy-duty icebreakers and four medium-sized ones to serve the Coast Guard and Navy missions in the Arctic. It is well past time for Congress to act.
This week, in a welcomed outbreak of bipartanship, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., — the chair and ranking minority member of the Senate Energy committee, respectively — introduced legislation to build six new icebreakers.
At $856 million per vessel, that is a huge request. If fulfilled, Puget Sound shipyards stand to gain.
Congress, like the American people, must recognize the strategic threats and necessities as climate change melts the Arctic”
Congress, like the American people, must recognize the strategic threats and necessities as climate change melts the Arctic. In the past decade, U.S. strategic actions were focused in the desert, not on the ice.
In the meantime, the Polar Star has outlasted seven presidencies. It is now officially on “caretaker” status and is projected to reach the end of its usable life in 2020. That would leave the United States without a heavy icebreaker.