Foreign Policy Blogs

Bipartisan amendment to build up to four icebreakers introduced to U.S. defense bill


U.S.S. Polar Star awaiting repairs in drydock in Seattle, WA. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard.

U.S.S. Polar Star awaiting repairs in drydock in Seattle, WA. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard.

In mid November, U.S. Senators Mark Begich (D-AK) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced an amendment into the National Defense Authorization Act cosponsored by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Patty Murray (D-WA) that would authorize spending on up to four icebreakers. While a total of four icebreakers would cost approximately $3.207 billion in 2008 dollars [1], the per-ship amount of about $802 million is small compared to the cost of an amphibious assault ship ($3 billion) or aircraft carrier ($11 billion). The Navy would contract the construction of the icebreakers, which would then be turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard. The USS Healy, the only icebreaker that the U.S. has in service at the moment, was in fact similarly funded by the defense budget and then given over to the Coast Guard.

Yet a director from the Government of Accountability Office said in a 2011 meeting of the House Subcommittee of Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation that a similar funding approach was “unlikely” at this time. He cited a recent Department of Defense (DOD) report stating that “the current level of human activity in the Arctic is already of concern to DHS, whereas the Arctic is expected to remain a peripheral interest to much of the national security community for the next decade or more. As a result, the Coast Guard has a more immediate need than DOD to acquire Arctic capabilities, such as icebreakers.” [2]

Still, the Arctic managed to make its way to the top of the U.S. military agenda last week when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel introduced the new DOD Arctic Strategy (PDF) at the Halifax International Security Forum. The strategy’s overarching goal is “a secure and stable region where U.S. national interests are safeguarded, the U.S. homeland is protected, and nations work cooperatively to address challenges.”Senator Lisa Murkowski tried to build on the momentum generated by Hagel, stating, “With Defense Secretary Hagel announcing last Friday that the nation’s military will be very involved in the Arctic region, moving forward towards an Arctic future means icebreakers; this bill would help deliver on that.”

Neither Hagel nor the strategy, however, mention the construction of new icebreakers. In fact, Hagel said, “DoD will use existing capabilities to help address safety-related challenges, including international search-and-rescue missions as well as incident and disaster response.” The U.S. Navy has no icebreaking capabilities, as that is solely the responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Of course, the Navy and other agencies such as the National Science Foundation would still benefit from expanded icebreaking capabilities. But in general, the DOD appears to be a stronger advocate of cooperation than of increasing national capabilities in the Arctic. Recalling the idea of the frontier, Hagel intoned that the Arctic “is the first new frontier of nautical exploration … since the days of Ericsson, Columbus, and Magellan, and it provides a clear opportunity to work together … to ensure we have accurate observations, maps, and models of the Arctic’s atmospheric, oceanic, and sea ice conditions.” Yet as a military frontier, the Arctic is not the Pacific Ocean or even the Caribbean Sea, both places where the U.S. tries to exert dominance in what it sees as its sphere of influence. In the Pacific, for instance, Vice President Biden met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan, just days after China’s institution of a new air defense identification zone, expressing, “We, the United States, are deeply concerned by the attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea.” The Pacific warrants rapid attention from American politicians and military officials alike. By contrast, these same officials are not nearly as concerned by developments in the maritime Arctic. The DOD is instead content to rely on multilateral solutions for the time being despite the objections of the Coast Guard and Alaskan representatives.

Senators Begich and Murkowski have staunchly advocated increasing U.S. Arctic capabilities for years, particularly in the way of building more icebreakers. Though farther south, Washington also has an interest in increasing polar capabilities because it stands to benefit economically. As Cantwell stated, “Icebreakers protect America’s Arctic interests and support Washington state shipbuilding jobs.” In 1976, Seattle’s Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction built the country’s only two heavy icebreakers, USS Polar Sea (currently inactive in Seattle) and USS Polar Star, which will soon re-enter service for another seven to ten years after years of renovations. Yet another Washington-based company, Vigor Industrial, is responsible for servicing and maintaining the three icebreakers in the American fleet.

But when consideration of the defense bill resumes next Monday, the senators from Alaska and Washington will likely be left sidelined as others in Congress scratch their heads wondering why billions need to be spent on icebreakers.

[1] O’Rourke, R. (2008). “Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress.”

[2] Ibid.



Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is pursuing a PhD in Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She received her MPhil (with Distinction) in Polar Studies from the University of Cambridge's Scott Polar Research Institute, where she was a Gates Scholar.

Mia examines how climate change is reshaping the geopolitics of the Arctic through an investigation of scientific endeavors, transportation and trade networks, governance, and natural resource development. Her masters dissertation investigated the extent of an Asian-Arctic region, focusing on the activities of Korea, China, and Japan in the circumpolar north. Mia's work has appeared in ReNew Canada, Water Canada, FACTA, and Baltic Rim Economies, among other publications.

She speaks French, Swedish, and is learning Russian.

Follow her on Twitter @miageografia