Arctic presence requires icebreaking capabilities

Arctic presence requires icebreaking capabilities


13 | 12 | 2022


The Arctic Sea could be an ice-free ocean part of the year in the long term, but the major powers are pressed to compete in the present and near-future situation

In the picture

The icebreaker US Coast Guard Corps Polar Star in a mission [USCGC].

The Arctic is bound to become one of the most geopolitically relevant regions in the world. By 2040, according to most recent estimates, the Arctic will presumably become an ice-free ocean. Unlike any other sea in the world, the Arctic is subject to the clashing interests of not just one major power, but to several of them: Canada, the US, Russia and the 'near Arctic nation', China.

The inevitable future which lies ahead for the High North is poised to bring a vast array of commercial opportunities for those willing to invest in the routes herein. In military terms, however, any potential naval conflict to take place-let us hope it doesn't-will be forced to heed local geostrategic conditions. As professor Jim Holmes puts it: "surface warfare would be thinkable in summertime, while aerial and undersea warfare would predominate when the ice returns. A mix of surface, subsurface, and overhead operations would be thinkable while the seasons change. Strange."

Yet, with a significant amount of ice still largely extended across most parts of the region, a much worrisome issue awaits Arctic nations, especially those who aspire to be the central players: to be able to contest for established presence and operational capacity, icebreakers that escort their ships and prevent them from getting stranded are an essential element to rely on. As we will now see, several NATO nations are turning to the Arctic, aiming to increase their presence and activity up there. Proof of this are the most recent strategies published by the United States, the United Kingdom or Denmark, among others. Thus, this article examines the underlying importance of icebreakers (or cutters) in order to operate in this harsh and unmerciful region, and what is the current situation among the dominant players such as Russia, China, the US or Norway.

Why Icebreakers?

Icebreakers are specially designed ships (commonly referred to as special-purpose ships), with a strengthened hull that prevents the iron sheets from cracking, a special arc-shaped bow which helps to cut through the ice while pushing the frozen blocks aside, and a special propulsion system to push against the thick ice cap-something most other ships don't have the power to do. Put it simply, big and heavier-than-normal ships prepared for the harsh conditions of the polar regions. They crash against the ice with their massive weight, pushed by their powerful propulsion systems, and the chunks of ice are then moved aside by the specially designed bow of the vessel.

Throughout the last decades, numerous incidents have highlighted the dangers ice caps pose for ships transiting Arctic waters, never mind whether they are cruises, position ships, or warships. When a vessel is not designed to operate in an environment as particular as the Arctic, misfortunes end up occurring sometimes. Last year, several ships were stranded along the Northern Sea Route due to the lack of icebreakers escorting them. And even if such situations are already delicate, they could keep worsening during the following years as activity in the region grows. Climate change will do the job, and the ice will gradually melt, but it won't happen from one day to another.

Thus, until that time comes, any nation aspiring to have a solid presence in the brave new world, with operational capacity and strategic independence (as allowed by the ever-changing local geography), needs to have icebreakers to deploy. Even if the submarines and aircraft of the US Navy play a crucial role in the preservation of the region's security, icebreakers remain an essential geopolitical instrument to expand economic growth in a place with such a promising future. In other words, a submarine can't clear the shipping routes like a cutter can.

Current situation

As of 2022, Russia's icebreaking capabilities dominate. The 'Arktika'-class icebreakers from the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet are the biggest ones in the world, and the only nuclear-powered icebreakers in existence. This last element contributes to further expanding the difference in icebreaking capabilities between Russia and the rest of Arctic states. In total, Russia holds around 46 icebreakers, and has another twelve being built. Among them, there are 12 nuclear-powered units, one of Moscow's most valuable assets. As of 2022, its most ambitious project is the 'Leader'-class of nuclear cutters.

With a length of 209 meters and 69,000 tons, they will be the biggest and-by far-most powerful cutters in the world. Construction for the first of three planned units in the class, the 'Rossiya', began in July 2021. They are set to be "the first icebreaker in the world that will be able to lead ships along the Northern Sea Route in 4-meter-thick ice round-the-year." Although they will be highly expensive (125.5 billion rubles), Moscow is confident that the benefits derived from their use in the medium to long term will significantly exceed the production costs. At least, that is the only plausible explanation given the delicate economic situation Putin's government now stands up against.

Meanwhile, China is also increasing its presence in the Arctic with more vessels deployed each year, proving its strong resolution to become more involved in Arctic affairs. The 'Xue Long', its biggest cutter, traversed the Northern Sea Route for the first time in 2012. With two units already deployed and two additional heavy cutters ongoing construction, it is widely accepted that Beijing is on track to develop nuclear-powered cutters during the next few years. Yet, its interests in the region are economic and commercial in nature. At least for now. Professor Marc Lanteigne underlined in an interview such efforts "indicate that China still sees the Arctic as a policy priority and wishes to continue to develop the Polar Silk Road despite many setbacks in the Nordic region". Their development will surely have to be closely followed.

The rest of states involved in the Arctic (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark) also hold their own icebreakers. Denmark's 'Danbjørn', launched in 1965, is among the oldest units currently operated; and in general terms, most of these nations hold around seven or eight vessels each. From them, Finland is considered to be the most experienced, with a centuries-long experience in building polar cutters. As a matter of fact, it is said a Finnish shipyard can build and deliver a polar-class icebreaker within 24 months once the contract has been signed, and with a significantly lower cost.

What about the US?

The United States recently stated its intentions to increase presence in the Arctic region in the new 'National Strategy for the Arctic Region'. However, the Americans have joined the party somewhat behind schedule. As of today, they operate 'a fleet' of one heavy polar icebreaker ('Polar Star') and a medium-size one, the 'Healy'. Needless to say, the United States has a significant impediment in its quest to pursue increased naval presence in the Arctic region. Two icebreakers are not enough, and even with the plan to build 3 additional heavy icebreakers with the Polar Security Cutter program, Washington faces here a long-term challenge. As the US Coast Guard Strategic states, "the US Coast Guard is the sole provider and operator of the US polar capable fleet but currently does not have the capability or capacity to assure access in the high latitudes."

In the light of Finnish potential to build a cutter fleet of decent numbers, and the dire need of the US for icebreaking capacity, a partnership between both nations seems like a logical option; especially now that Finland is about to become a NATO member. This idea, however, is not new. Stefan Lindstrom, Finnish Consul General in the US, suggested back in 2017 Finland could offer help to the US in solving this problem. "The US is now in dire straits about its own icebreaker fleet. They only have two and they are both seriously outdated. We can help." Lindstrom further criticized the seeming fact that US officials were more prone to build their own cutters at a ridiculously high price rather than buying Finnish ones at one-fifth of that price. With that ratio, they would be able to purchase five units for the cost of one home-made.

In sum, the current landscape with polar icebreakers represents for the United States a challenge of similar nature as the one in the South China Sea: if you want influence, you have to be there. While the US Navy and Coast Guard have had low levels of activity during the past decades, Russia and China have taken advantage and expanded their cutter fleets (although Russia has always been the leading force in this aspect). Commercial opportunities and natural resources are bound to be the leading drivers of future Arctic geostrategic skirmishes. Thus, being the Arctic as hostile an environment as it is, the use of icebreakers remains a basic obligation for any actor with serious aspirations of displaying solid operational capabilities. 

Without cutters, commercial routes can't be cleared of ice and ships can't sail through them either. In this regard, Russia is the uncontested leader, with an outstandingly large fleet of both conventional and nuclear-powered vessels. China is gradually expanding its presence in the region and demands further decision-making power under the premise that climate change and its effects in the Arctic directly affect their national security. On the opposite side, the US is in dire need to take action and establish more regular presence. Yet, to do so, they need more cutters delivered as soon and cheap as possible. Finland may have a few things to say on this.