The reality is that the U.S. no longer has the capacity to operate effectively in Arctic waters.

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WHEN an ice flow obliterates an oil rig in the Arctic Ocean, emergency-response crews’ only chance of reaching it will be on a polar-class icebreaker. Russia has 40 such ships, plus 11 in production, including nuclear icebreakers. The U.S. has two — one a decade past its useful life, the other outfitted as a scientific-research vessel.

Exposed by the melting ice sheet, the newly navigable Arctic Ocean lures shipping and industrial activity northward. This “ice-free sea” is, however, choked with icebergs that can sink ships and cripple oil rigs. The shrinking ice sheet creates an urgent need for the U.S. to invest in a new fleet of icebreakers.

While the lure of economic prosperity in the Arctic grows, the United States’ ability to protect, regulate activity and respond to crises is surprisingly nonexistent.

To address this shortfall, the federal budget includes $150 million for a new icebreaker. But building one in the U.S. will cost more than $1 billion, and the vessel likely wouldn’t launch for a decade or more. There is a real possibility of an “icebreaker gap,” a period of five or more years when the U.S. has no heavy icebreakers.

There are options to avoid this. Finland’s state-owned Arctia Shipping, a world leader in icebreaker operations can procure multiple icebreakers per year at a fraction of the cost.

Clearly the U.S. should buy or lease an icebreaker from Finland. Unfortunately, domestic legislation stands in the way.

Of the two U.S. polar-class icebreakers, the Polar Star, built in Seattle in 1976, is our only heavy icebreaker. It’s a decade past its decommission date, and though refurbished, operates without many crucial features. The Polar Star’s condition exposes Coast Guard service members to unnecessary and unacceptable dangers and reduces their ability to successfully complete Arctic missions.

The Healy, though still within its useful lifetime, is a medium icebreaker meant for scientific research. It’s not capable of handling the needs of the warming Arctic.

There is a third icebreaker, the Polar Sea. Commissioned as a sister ship to the Polar Star in 1979, it has been in dry dock in Seattle since 2010 with critical engine failure. Congress ordered the Polar Sea stripped of useful parts.

The reality is that the U.S. no longer has the capacity to operate effectively in Arctic waters.”

In short, the United States’ icebreaking capability is in critical condition. Considering that Polar Star and Healey are responsible not only for the Arctic, the United States’ third longest coastline, but also for U.S. operations in the Antarctic, the urgency to invest in a new generation of icebreakers is clear.

The reality is that the U.S. no longer has the capacity to operate effectively in Arctic waters.

The hurdles faced by the U.S. in addressing this challenge can be overcome. Our maritime industries are among the best in the world, and Congress is right to demand that U.S. industries start building icebreaking vessels again. Meanwhile, as the U.S. invests in its domestic shipbuilding industry, it should also lease one or more icebreakers from Finland to bridge the widening “icebreaker gap.” The blocking legislation can be waived again as it has been in the past.

These swift actions to lease in the short term and invest for the long term would ensure that the Coast Guard could fulfill its critical mandate in the Arctic and allow U.S. public-private partnerships to facilitate safe and sustainable development of the region.