Congress Asks Why US Has 2 'Worn Out' Icebreakers in Arctic Compared to Russia's 30+

By Zachary Leshin | November 19, 2015 | 2:20pm EST
The 399-foot U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star is the only remaining U.S. vessel capable of breaking through the thickest Arctic Circle ice. (AP File photo)

( – Members of Congress expressed concern that the U.S. has only two “worn out” icebreakers patrolling the Arctic, compared to more than 30 belonging to Russia.

“We talk about Russia as a security issue, but they really want to claim that area with China, and we sit on our hands. We have two worn out icebreakers which I funded… 40 years ago,” Rep. Don Young (R-AK) said during a hearing held jointly by the House Europe Subcommittee and the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Young also expressed his concern over the lack of infrastructure to support the vessels. “We need new icebreakers, we need new docks. We don't have any docks,” he said.

According to the White House, “the United States technically has three icebreakers in its fleet - all under the command of the U.S. Coast Guard. However, when age and reliability are taken into account, the fleet is down to the equivalent of two fully functional icebreakers and only one heavy-duty icebreaker.

“Russia, on the other hand, has forty icebreakers and another eleven planned or under construction.”

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), chair of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, expressed his concern that Russia was deploying its icebreakers “to project power and stake claims in the Arctic.”

“In terms of security, the Arctic presents a unique set of challenges. Traditional concerns exist such as the ability to monitor geopolitical rivals operating in the same area. Both Russia and China are active in the north, and an increased U.S. presence is necessary to demonstrate that we're not falling behind.

“Russia has shown a commitment to establishing a strong presence in the far north, beginning construction on bases on the Alexandra and Kotelny Islands. Though these are installations mostly suited for limited operational capacity and surveillance, the intention is very clear, to project power and stake claims in the Arctic,” Duncan said.

“The melting ice in the Arctic also poses security [concerns] we need to consider,” said Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ), ranking member of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.

“Within the last few years we have witnessed Russia's continued pattern of encroachment with Ukraine, Crimea, and Syria. Now Russia is racing to control the Arctic, operating over 30 icebreakers where the U.S. only has two.

“We must remain vigilant to the growing aggression and ensure that it does not spread to the Arctic, running counter to U.S. interests.”

Sires asked Admiral Robert Papp, Special Representative for the Arctic at the U.S. Department of State, about the reason for the large icebreaker gap.

“I was happy to hear that we are monitoring what's going on in terms of the Russians, but can you tell me, they have 30 icebreakers, we have two. That's a whole fleet to me. Why do they need 30, and we can only deal with two?”

“The Russians are much more connected to their Arctic than the people of the United States are. Culturally the Arctic is a part of Russia, and they have been involved there much longer,” Papp responded.

“And they now have an opening sea route which is directing their attention to it even more, and they have half the coastline in the Arctic. They are doing legitimate things… that they should be doing as an Arctic nation and preparing for increased human activity.

“I don't begrudge them having the icebreakers, but we should be doing the same thing,” Papp continued. “Our Arctic is opening up, there's much more human activity, and the United States Coast Guard needs to provide ensured access for security issues.

“And the only way you can do that guaranteed year round is by having icebreakers.”

In September, the Obama administration announced plans to add additional icebreakers to the U.S. fleet, but funding and building one could take up to 10 years.


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