Trump memo demands new fleet of Arctic icebreakers be ready by 2029

David Larter, Joe Gould, Aaron Mehta
1 / 2

Trump memo demands new fleet of Arctic icebreakers be ready by 2029

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Trump ordered a review of the country’s requirements for icebreaking capabilities in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, with the goal of getting a fleet in place by 2029, according to a memo released Tuesday.

The memo was directed at the Defense, State, Commerce and Homeland Security departments, as well as the Office of Management and Budget.

Much of it directs work already in progress — including building a fleet of at least three heavy icebreakers — but says the remaining ships not under contract should be reviewed for what can be done to maximize their utility in the frozen poles.

The memo calls for “an assessment of expanded operational capabilities, with estimated associated costs, for both heavy and medium [polar security cutters] not yet contracted for, specifically including the maximum use of any such PSC with respect to its ability to support national security objectives.” That assessment is due in 60 days.

Trump’s directive to assess the current plan to field an Arctic maritime capability over the next decade is the latest sign that the administration is increasingly concerned about Russian and Chinese activity in the northern region, which could threaten America’s interests in crucial chokepoints, such as the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom Gap.

In April 2019, the U.S. Coast Guard announced it had signed a $746 million contract with VT Halter Marine of Pascagoula, Mississippi, for the detailed design and construction of its first polar security cutter — the first of the heavy icebreakers. And with the fiscal 2021 budget submission now before Congress, the Coast Guard says it can fully fund a second polar security cutter, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

But the memo calls for a review of what the appropriate mix of ships should be for an Arctic fleet, suggesting that some changes to the three planned medium polar security cutters could be on the table.

The memo asks for “use cases in the Arctic that span the full range of national and economic security missions (including the facilitation of resource exploration and exploitation and undersea cable laying and maintenance) that may be executed by a class of medium PSCs, as well as analysis of how these use cases differ with respect to the anticipated use of heavy PSCs for these same activities."

“These use cases shall identify the optimal number and type of polar security icebreakers for ensuring a persistent presence in both the Arctic and, as appropriate, the Antarctic regions,” he memo continues.

It also raises the possibility of nuclear-powered icebreakers, currently only operated by Russia, which would give the polar security cutter more persistent presence in the Arctic, since it would not need to refuel.

The memo also calls for the study to identify two basing locations in the United States for its ice-hardened fleet, as well as two international locations. A study mandated by last year’s National Defense Authorization Act mandated that the Defense Department study locations for a port in the Arctic.

Furthermore, given that the Coast Guard has a lone operational heavy icebreaker, the 44-year-old Polar Star, the memo calls for the agencies to identify potential vessels that could be leased as a stop-gap measure.

The 2029 date set by Trump corresponds with the year that both the Coast Guard’s current ice breakers, the medium icebreaker Healy and the heavy icebreaker Polar Star are slated to be out of service.

Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, a forceful advocate on the Senate Armed Services Committee for directing more resources toward the Arctic, said the memo would “add weight” to ongoing efforts to build up America’s presence in the Arctic.

“Our adversaries are well ahead of the United States when it comes to Arctic infrastructure,” Sullivan said in a statement. “We have one heavy and one medium functioning Polar-class icebreakers, while Russia has more than 50.

“I have fought for five years to bring Arctic issues to the forefront, including in the FY19 NDAA to authorize the building of six such icebreakers and my bill, the Strategic Arctic Naval Focus Act, to develop the capabilities and basing locations needed to support persistent presence in the Arctic.”

While the president’s memo appeared to catch regional observers by surprise, its content lines up with the administration’s rhetoric on the region, said Erik Brattberg, director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The Trump administration has shown a greater interest in Arctic issues in recent years, driven especially by China’s growing presence in the region,” Brattberg said. “While America’s allies and partners in Northern Europe would welcome a greater U.S. presence in the Arctic, they are also wary of the region becoming increasingly marked by zero-sum, great power competition between the U.S., Russia and China.”

Leasing icebreakers

If the U.S. were to lease icebreakers for missions such as the annual breaking out of the National Science Foundation’s research facility in Antarctica, McMurdo Station, three nations seem most likely to be able to fill the niche: Canada, Finland and Sweden.

All three have rare excess icebreaker capacity, and all three would likely welcome the business.

Finland, whose industry claims to have “designed about 80 percent of the world’s icebreakers” and produced “about 60 percent” of the world’s fleet, has hoped to break into the American market for years. The leasing opportunity could provide a foothold for Helsinki, although issues may arise with the U.S. Jones Act that may complicate the act of America outright buying a Finnish-made icebreaker. The law is meant to provide stability to the U.S. maritime industry by supporting domestic business.

“The White House announcement will likely be music in the ears of Finland, which has been trying to sell or lease icebreakers to the U.S. for years,” Brattberg said.

It is also possible that Sweden and Finland — two European Union, non-NATO states that have close relations — could try to create some form of joint offering for America’s needs.

The U.S. has leased icebreakers for the McMurdo mission from Sweden and Russia as late as 2012 — just prior to the souring of relations between the West and Russia over the latter’s annexation of Crimea. But such an arrangement often limits how the vessel can be used under the terms of the lease.

In 2017, a study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine mandated by Congress the year before, concluded that leasing icebreakers was not a viable path for the Coast Guard.

“Chartering (an operating lease) is not a viable option,” the study found. “The availability of polar icebreakers on the open market is extremely limited. (The committee is aware of the sale of only one heavy icebreaker since 2010.) U.S. experience with chartering a polar icebreaker for the McMurdo resupply mission has been problematic on two prior charter attempts.

“Chartering is workable only if the need is short term and mission specific. The committee notes that chartering may preclude USCG from performing its multiple missions.”

In the Coast Guard’s own 2019 environmental impact study for the Polar Security Cutter program, the service concluded that there were no vessels available to lease that would “substantially meet” the operational requirement for its icebreaking needs.

Furthermore, any lease would need to be such that the Coast Guard provide the manning, training and equipping of the vessel — assuming all the costs — while still paying for the privilege of having it, making such an arrangement a financially dubious prospect.

Frozen flashpoint

The White House’s decree comes in the context of a larger refocusing of national attention to the Arctic, as warming waters and melting ice open more time-efficient shipping routes and give nations greater access to natural resources that may have once been cost-prohibitive to reach.

Russia in particular has made clear to the international community that it has core economic interests there and will defend them, even building icebreakers with cruise missiles and deck guns to patrol frozen waters. The country, with 7,000 miles of Arctic coast, sees the region as both a security liability and a key to its long-term economic success. President Vladimir Putin in 2017 put estimates of the mineral wealth in the region at $30 trillion.

In a February hearing before the congressional Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, Michael Murphy, testified that Russia’s military buildup in the Arctic threatens the United States’ and NATO’s northern flank.

Although Russia has cooperated on oil spill response and search-and-rescue missions, the U.S. views the country’s moves with suspicion, especially in the establishment of an Arctic base and the installation of coastal missile batteries, early warning radars and air defenses, Murphy said in testimony.

“The Russian military buildup in the Arctic has implications beyond its waters,” he said. “From a geostrategic perspective, the Arctic and the North Atlantic are inextricably linked. The Arctic provides Russian ships and submarines with access to a critical naval chokepoint: the GIUK gap that plays an outsized role in NATO’s defense and deterrence strategy. Underwater trans-Atlantic cables also run through this area."

“In short, NATO’s northern flank must once again command the attention of the United States and its allies,” he added.

Similar to its concerns for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which has become a flashpoint in Sino-U.S. relations, the U.S. is taking issue with Russia’s attempt to force shippers to use Russian pilots and pay for use of the Northern Sea Route, which runs through Russia’s exclusive economic zone. Russia has heavily invested in icebreakers to keep the Northern Sea Route open for as long as possible each year, and therefore the country views it as something of a toll road.

“Russia’s restrictions on the freedom of navigation in the Northern Sea Route are inconsistent with international law,” Murphy said.