by Nat South for The Saker Blog

In the first part of the series on the Arctic shipping and icebreakers,” Arctic Russian icebreakers – Kerfuffle over numbers, role and expectations”, (June 2019), I started by looking at the Bloomberg article, “Putin’s Arctic Plans Are a Climate Change Bet”. The article refers to the newest generation of Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers designed to work along the Northern Sea Route, (NSR). However, this shipping route continues to be a bone of contention in Washington, riled by its inability of the U.S. military to go along this route as it pleases. Although the U.S. has recently been pipped to the post by the French Navy’s auxiliary ship, BSAH ‘Rhône’, which transited last September, a journey done without needing Russian icebreaker assistance.

Washington has a beloved practice of getting the navy to carry out “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOP) from time to time, more recently in the South China Sea. These are a high-level antagonistic voyage, to prove a point about international law and freedom of navigation in various parts of the world. So, it is not surprising to hear that the U.S. wants to do a ‘surface’ FONOP along the NSR [1]. Fortunately for the Russians, Washington has hit a few snags with putting this plan into fruition, namely the fear of having to get assistance from a Russian icebreaker in case of difficulties. Yet, it is gearing up to carrying out one, the first since the Soviet times back in the 1965 & 1967, when two U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers had to turn back due to the pressure put on by the USSR, when they tried to go through the Vilkitsky Strait. Since then, the idea had been quietly sitting on a shelf until the lure going there due to declining sea-ice and longer ice-free summer periods was too tempting.

The U.S. has started to take incremental steps towards a fully-fledged FONOP, by getting various U.S. Navy ships to operate & exercise at higher latitudes, (Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise  – AECE 2019 in Alaska is one example). The 2018 Trident Juncture exercise also highlighted the difficulties of operating at high latitudes, even if there isn’t any sea-ice. That’s because cold temperatures, strong winds, and heavy seas all lend a hand to make conditions difficult and challenging. The amphibious dock landing ship USS ‘Gunston Hall’ suffered damage during stormy weather off Iceland and had to return to port. This meant that another amphibious transport dock ship had to return to port as a precaution.

Today’s NATO forces are carrying a slow mission creep back above the Arctic circle, from French mountain troops training in Norway to U.S. marines in Iceland. As the commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, Adm. James Foggo, said “ We’re toughening everyone up.” Adm Foggo also said. “This is an exercise, not a crisis, but weather can be as capable an adversary as another nation that invades your territory, and we’re finding out that there’s some very challenging conditions out there.” (The phrase General winter springs to mind).

Why has mentions of FONOP resurfaced now? The timing of the FONOP suggestion in May seems to be a response to the announcement by Russia to restrict traffic on the Northern Sea Route — with a 45-day notification in advance, with details of the characteristics of the ship, a cargo manifest and information on the captain of each ship, as well as a requirement for Russian pilots onboard foreign ships. All of the kind of stuff that automatically irks certain circles in Washington and also increases the verbosity level. The overall U.S. response is summed by the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), Adm Schultz, who said. “I think in the Arctic right now, if we did something with the Navy, it’s more about just showing our ability to project capability up there.”

Although projecting capabilities is a recurring element, however, it is not the bottom line in the pursuit for unimpeded access to lucrative national resources. This outlook manifests itself in another Bloomberg example:  “America Is Losing the Battle of the Arctic”. Just the headline is cringeworthy of epic proportions: Yet the first paragraph is succinct: “Arctic, a region whose growing importance is reshaping the world’s geo-economics and geopolitics alike.” This is the crux of the matter at stake.

Given that the U.S. is an Arctic nation due to Alaska, so far, the rhetoric does not translate well into significant actions. Yet, this issue of accessibility and power projection isn’t new, as it has been a longstanding aspect of the Cold War. What is important to note that the Arctic had been strategically significant during the Cold War, but it seems that period has been whitewashed from today’s narrative, to make the claims and counter/claims with slightly more ‘scaremongering’ factors added about Russian military forces in the Russian Arctic, as well as increasing presence of Chinese activities in the region. Here I will present you with just one example how the narrative relating to icebreakers is framed:

The Russians have 40 icebreakers … and they’re building 13 more, many of which are weaponized,” says U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan. Many? Weaponised? The journalist who interviewed the Senator did not go a step further to ask about specific examples. You get the gist that this is a load of absolute hogwash, to put it politely. Something got seriously garbled somewhere along the grapevine, because I am aware of just the one ice-strengthened naval ship type that might potentially capable of carrying heavy weaponry onboard, (the ‘Ivan Papanin’,

Project 23550 ice-class patrol boats (x2) with 100mm main gun and Kalibr cruise missile launchers). So, 2 equates to ‘many’, well, two more than what the U.S. has – 0.

The biggest icebreaker bugbear that Washington has is not actually over the numbers of Russian government-operated icebreakers active, but the huge disparity itself, commonly referred to an “icebreaker gap”, (in the same way there was a “missile gap” during the Cold War). The U.S. has just the two available icebreakers. The only working government operated medium icebreaker, the USCGC ‘Healy’ is busy elsewhere and the only heavy icebreaker suitable for FONOP in the Arctic is the USCGC ‘Polar Star’, just happens to be the only U.S. research support and supply workhorse to Antarctica. Built in 1978, ‘Polar Star’ is rather elderly and prone to technical mishaps and so in need of dedicated “tender loving care’ TLC from its crew. Likewise, the former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Retired Adm Paul Zukunft, said that his “biggest fear when I was commandant” was needing to get Russian or Canadian help if one USCG ship had got stuck in ice in the Arctic.

There is a sense of torment when reading about the U.S. policy on the Arctic, the U.S. media articles on Russian icebreaking capabilities (in numbers and supersize). Yet, the horse has bolted out from the stable a long time ago. It is a pseudo priority in reality. When you consider that after 9/11, the U.S. has spent $32 million an hour on war operations for the last 18 years. Now, how much would it cost the U.S. to construct & operate 2 or 3 brand-new icebreakers, if having capabilities to operate in the Arctic had been so important of late? The difference between grandiose talk of jointly funding a new generation of icebreakers, (started by Obama in 2015), and having concrete projects being actioned is very wide. The USCG had to fight to get funds earmarked for a new icebreaker programme, and this was only set in motion back in April, when it announced a contract for the design and construction of a new heavy icebreaker, known as Polar Security Cutter (PSC). The first icebreaker, the lead ship of its class is expected to be delivered in 2024.  The USCG’s wish list includes a total of three heavy and three medium icebreakers, but it will remain to be seen whether this does become reality. Currently the U.S. Coast Guard has not been allocated sufficient funding for a second and third heavy icebreakers. The contract for the first heavy icebreaker in over 40 years is estimated at just under $750 million and covers the design, engineering, and construction costs. The USCG icebreaker will be a 37,000-ton vessel, with diesel-electric propulsion, with 45,200 HP power driven by Azipods. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2021 and with likely delivery of the vessel in 2024.

The idea that the U.S. could assert more capabilities and more power in the Arctic by just having a few icebreakers, is rather too simplistic. The notion that icebreakers (Russian or U.S.) as some kind of pawn to be deployed around for military power projection is heavily flawed. They already have a specific purpose, namely helping merchant ships to transit safely through sea-ice, to help carry out research in remote and inhospitable conditions, to assist in the event of an emergency, (Search and Rescue). The existing USCG icebreakers do just that and that is their roles. In Russia, icebreakers also play a vital part within the national transport infrastructure, by keeping trade and Arctic community supply routes open. Yet only 28 ships used the NSR in 2018. Russia is constructing the “Arktika”-class (Project. 22220) of heavy nuclear icebreakers as needy replacement for the current series, and more importantly to able to assist much larger ships along the NSR in sea-ice conditions.

Essentially the U.S. is using Russian icebreakers as an excuse for their own policy failings, procrastination and political wrangling. The Washington popular hyperbole is projecting an unworkable idea of countering (and balance) Russia and China, but this won’t be achieved through icebreakers. The reality is that the U.S. is trailing a long way behind when it comes to maintaining and enhancing its own assets to guard its territory above the Arctic Circle. The shortfall in icebreaker assets will remain and the U.S. can only compensate for this shortfall in other strategic and military areas. Returning to the main topic, the Bloomberg article quoted the 2019 USCG Arctic strategy document:

Russia has 14 icebreakers, has built six Arctic bases since 2013, and is bringing old air bases and infrastructure back into use. “

The reference to 14 icebreakers is slightly more realistic than the 46 frequently cited in the media and elsewhere. The figure of 46 comes from a 2017 USCG infographic, entitled: “Major icebreakers of the world”. It is very detailed, but to note the actual key (major icebreakers) of significance are those in black, since they have the highest power rating to ram through thick ice repeatedly. As such, they are able to operate independently in the thickest permissible ice for their class and assist other ships. The others are mostly used for lower ice thickness, hence are designated as either medium or light.

  • Medium: handle ice conditions in port approaches in the Arctic, used in combination with heavy icebreakers farther out.
  • Light: to keep port approaches open during winter, such as Vladivostok or St Petersburg.

What is interesting to note that the U.S. hasn’t really been really bothered by Russian nuclear icebreakers in operation, but now that China has plans for a nuclear-powered icebreaker, the U.S. suddenly noted this & sees it as a concern.  Equally, the voyages of the current Chinese conventional icebreaker, ‘Xue Long’, in the Arctic and along the NSR has also been reported by the Western media in a tendentious manner. The U.S. sees China’s growing power posture in the Arctic region as a threat, too close for comfort to its backyard, especially relating to Alaska. Likewise, Washington sees itself as being side-lined by a combination of Chinese activity in the Arctic in cooperation with Russia. Pompeo specifically singled Russia and China in a speech to the Arctic Council in May: “We’re concerned about Russia’s claim over the international waters of the Northern Sea Route, including its newly announced plans to connect it with China’s Maritime Silk Road.”

Digressing a little here, but the U.S. Navy Secretary, Richard Spencer, initially mentioned wanting to carry out FONOPs in the Arctic in January 2019. Five months later, he reiterated the call but adding: “If the possibility exists to go all the way around the Northwest Passage, I’d actually give that a shot. It’s freedom of navigation. If we can do it, we’ll do it.”  How to vex your northern neighbour: talk about a FONOP in the North West Passage (NWP). Secretary of State, Pompeo, also raised the issue of the NWP, when he stated in May” The U.S. has a long-contested feud with Canada over sovereign claims through the Northwest Passage”. Suffice to say, the US views of Canada’s claims of the NWP as its territorial waters, as contrary to international law, (similarly to how the NSR is viewed). This unnuanced stance taken by the U.S. is a little awkward to put it mildly. The U.S. did carry out a FONOP through the NWP, 34 years with the USCG ‘Polar Star’ causing a controversy in Canada at the time. Thankfully, a FONOP hasn’t been carried in either the NSR or NWP this summer.

The U.S. pursuit for more influence in the Arctic & calls for narrowing the icebreaker gap, are a microcosm of the core policy of upholding US-led values globally. A disquieting mindset is encapsulated in this extract of an interview with U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffrey:

That foundation is an American-led global collective security system to fend off the predators that want to tear the system apart. Not just the military coalition, but the values that stand behind it.”

Ambassador Jeffrey was presenting his views on US and democratic values. He referred obliquely to China, Russia, and Iran.

To sum up, the U.S. sees both Russia and China as spoilers with a strong desire to prevent the US wishes in gaining unimpeded access to the Arctic. Sullenly, at times, this invariably morphs into an ‘icebreaker gap’ conundrum to promote as part of a wider advocacy for U.S. national interests.

[1] Surface FONOP since I don’t doubt that submarines have gone through there, but this hardly going to be publicised.

Nat South is currently a casual maritime commentator and researcher, with a special interest in the polar regions. Formerly a polyglot sailor and trainer.

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