The United States has long been derided as a reluctant Arctic power — but hesitancy is no longer an option in the world’s highest latitudes. Changing geopolitical circumstances require American assertiveness, innovation and leadership to counter increasing Russian militancy in the region.
The good news? Congress is taking decisive action to strengthen our influence in the Arctic.
After a decades-long decline in heavy icebreaker capability, Congress finally stepped up and appropriated $746 million for construction of the initial Polar Security Cutter with contract options for an additional two vessels for a total cost of $2.95 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.
With the ability to handle extreme marine conditions and independently break through 50-foot ice ridges, this new ship class to be homeported at Coast Guard Base Seattle will be a game-changing asset for American interests in the most unforgiving northern and southern realms on Earth. The timing of this project could not be more critical with the nation’s lone heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, having exceeded its 30-year service life leaving only the medium icebreaker, Healy, in full operational status.
As polar ice sheet and glacier melt continues, previously inaccessible sea lanes are opening to maritime transit. As a result, increasing commerce, tourism, energy production, and scientific research at the highest and lowest latitudes of the Arctic and Antarctic are now commonplace. Just the prospect of opening the Northwest Passage to commercial traffic will represent a historic milestone in maritime trade, bringing Europe and Asia closer together by an estimated 5,000 nautical miles, similar to the impact of the Panama Canal a century ago.
But the possibility of newly reachable riches is creating geopolitical friction in a part of the world only sparsely settled. The speed of changing environmental conditions is exceeding the ability of Arctic nations to adjust and address issues related to sea level rise, creating potential instability. In an area which has historically invited American and Russian rivalry, these new tensions further grind bilateral relations like geopolitical tectonic plates.
In concert with the climate, strategic calculations are also changing in the Arctic. Since 2013, Russia has built six military bases in the region and 14 icebreakers. As U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz recently said at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, America is playing catch up in the region. Even China as a non-Arctic nation will have more ice-breaking capability than the U.S. within five years, Admiral Schultz noted.
Of course, America is a maritime nation. Even today with all the advances in commercial aviation, that reality remains unchanged. In a single year alone, maritime commerce supports $5.4 trillion in U.S. economic activity and employment of 30 million Americans. The domestic and global supply chains of every company depend squarely on access to waterborne trade.
Beyond mere sea-lane access, the economic stakes are high in the northern latitudes. The accepted American territorial claim in the Arctic alone contains 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil reserves, an estimated 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas, and $1 trillion in rare earth minerals. For Russia, upward of 20% of its gross domestic product (GDP) is derived from Arctic resources and industry, as evidenced by its recent decision to build a second liquefied natural gas export facility in the region.
A revitalized American presence in the Arctic would provide necessary ballast in the lightly governed region, allowing certainty for companies of all countries to operate prudently and responsibly.
Congress has made the vital down payment to protect and preserve the nation’s economic security, but now must follow through and fully fund the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaker requirements. America can no longer afford to be the reluctant Arctic power.
Author: Christian Zur is the U.S. Chamber's executive director for Procurement and Space Policy, specializing in federal agency regulatory and legislative acquisition initiatives. He acts as liaison between Chamber member companies and Congress on defense and space policy, and participates in numerous national security industry coalitions.