Russia Developing Missile-Armed Icebreakers, Coast Guard Commandant Says
By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor
WASHINGTON — The Coast Guard commandant has expressed concern over militarization of the Arctic Ocean, noting that Russia is developing warships specifically designed to operate in the Arctic.
“We know Russia probably is going to launch two icebreaking corvettes with cruise missiles on them over the course of the next several years,” Adm. Paul F. Zukunft said May 3 during a discussion on Arctic operations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “We’re not building anything in the Navy’s surface fleet to counteract that.
“So, what might an icebreaker of the 21st century need to do?” Zukunft asked rhetorically. “You might want to reserve space, weight and power where you have an offensive and a defensive armed capability as a military service. What if this becomes a militarized domain? What do we get a head start with? That could be a future requirement for our icebreaking fleet.”
Zukunft said Russia has “made a strategic statement. They’ve got all their chess pieces on the board. And, right now, we’ve got a pawn and a maybe a rook. If you look at this Arctic game of chess, they’ve got us at checkmate from the very beginning if this become a militarized domain. So it is going to be a test of U.S. will. Are we serious about being an Arctic nation?
“We can write great policy, but if you do not have presence to exert sovereignty, you’re really nothing more than a paper lion,” he said.
Zukunft noted one strategic challenge in the Arctic is the legal status of the Northwest Passage (through Canadian islands) and the Northern Sea Route (along the northern shore of Russia).
“We would view these as international straits,” he said. “We haven’t really crossed our ‘Ts’ on that just yet.”
Noting that the 2017 budget provides funds for icebreakers, he said the Coast Guard has “tremendous bipartisan support to recapitalize our icebreakers.”
The Coast Guard’s program of record is for six icebreakers — three large and three medium. Zukunft said $150 million has been invested into industry studies that have been awarded to five shipyards looking at competing for the designs. The Coast Guard plans to have the first new icebreaker in 2023.
The Coast Guard has only one polar icebreaker in service — the 50-year-old Polar Star. He noted that although the cutter successfully completed its Antarctic resupply transit this year, its evaporator broke down as it departed the area, leaving the crew without a way to convert seawater to potable water.
“There are no heavy icebreakers to lease,” Zukunft said, also noting that having only one polar icebreaker takes a toll on the morale of the crew when it has to spend long periods away from its home in Seattle to go through maintenance in California, all of which can total 300 days per year, counting time at sea.