Arctic Policy: Assets and Opportunities


The USCGC Healy is a medium strength icebreaker and is the most technologically advanced and newest icebreaker in the current US fleet. US Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Prentice Danner.

The combination of melting arctic seascape along with an economic pursuit for cost effective shipping has given rise to a new arctic. As the frigid waters of the arctic warm, so does the political and economic possibility for nations to profit from the opening trade routes. During the summer of 2012, the arctic lost 4.1 million square kilometers of ice, and predictions are being made that the arctic will have 45 percent less ice this year than the average icepack from 1979-2000. New possibilities are occurring due to warming waters, and nations are trying to benefit from the opportunities of the opening seascape. Last year a new record was set on the volume of commercial cargo moved within the Northern Sea Routes (NSR), with forty-six ships, carrying 1,261,545 tons of cargo through the NSR in 2012, a 53 percent increase from 2011. The arctic is expected to see growth in the coming years in traffic, infrastructure expansion, and research, along with new policies to maintain peace in the region.

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More than two million people live within the arctic region of Russia. The Far East generates 11 percent of Russia’s GDP through industries consisting of energy, fisheries, minerals and timber. Also, there have been new oil field discoveries that make up 80 percent of Russia’s reserves, which will play a crucial part in the economic future of Russia.

As of 2013 the Russian government has approved plans to further develop their arctic strategy. Basic strategy advancements consist of securing oil fields, scientific research, and maintaining the Northern Trade Route. These strategies do not necessarily need military enforcement, but the Russian government is implementing it anyway.

Currently, Russia has nine Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBN). Seven of the nine are located in or around the Kola Peninsula in the arctic. If the fleet were to be outfitted with their maximum capacity of warheads, the nine subs would have 528 warheads, of which 384 would be based in the Kola region of the arctic.

Russia holds the record for having the most icebreakers in the world, totaling thirty-two vessels, one of which is the largest icebreaker in the world, the nuclear-fueled 50 Years of Victory, which is used as a cruise ship for tourists wishing to go to the North Pole.

The Russian government is looking to retire eighteen of their outdated icebreakers, and build twenty-seven new icebreakers by 2030 (see pacific maritime magazine January, 2013). The projected new fleet will have up to forty-five icebreakers in order to meet Russia’s objectives of securing the arctic and pursuing natural resource exploitation, while maintaining the Northern Trade Route for a year-round patrol.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whose economy is reliant on carbon deposits, clearly understands the benefits of a northern sea route and hydrocarbon deposit extraction off his nation’s continental shelf, and has emphasized the importance of peace and cooperation in the arctic.

United States

The United States is not nearly as active as the Russians in the arctic. The US has two operational icebreakers and the Navy has no icebreaking capabilities, but does have submarines patrolling the arctic. A study done by the US Coast Guard says that the US needs at least six heavy-duty icebreakers, and four medium-duty, to execute Coast Guard and Navy missions.

Currently the US has three icebreakers. They are the USCGC Polar Star, USCGC Polar Sea, and the USCGC Healy. All three are homeported out of Seattle, Washington, a multiday trip from the arctic Circle.

The Polar Sea and the Polar Star are heavy-duty sister ships that were built by Lockheed Shipbuilding of Seattle, Washington and commissioned in 1976 and 1977. They originally had a projected thirty-year service lifetime, and have exceeded their original life expectancy.

The Polar Star was in “caretaking status” in 2006. In FY2009 and FY2010, funding was obtained from Congress to repair and return the vessel to service. The added repairs added seven to ten years of service life to the Polar Star and cost $57 million. The vessel returned to active status on December 14, 2012.

The Polar Sea is currently listed as “commissioned, inactive status” as of October 2011, due to an engine malfunction, which led to an eventual engine casualty. The ship has been a political battleground in the last three years, as there has been debate over what to do with the dated, broken vessel. The Polar Sea was originally scheduled to be scrapped in June of 2012, but earned a reprieve by Northwest Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Mark Begich (D-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). There was another scrapping date set for October of 2012, which was also postponed due to the efforts of the three Senators, who have been at the forefront of preserving and expanding the US icebreaking fleet. The ship is currently moored at the Coast Guard Base Seattle and is awaiting her uncertain fate.

This leaves the United States with two functioning, but dated, icebreakers to use for both arctic and Antarctic Coast Guard missions, which are difficult to execute with their current icebreaker fleet. Not only is the fleet outdated, but also only two of the three icebreakers are operational.

The fact the US is underequipped to handle arctic missions is reflected in the Nome oil supply incident of winter 2011/2012. Nome, Alaska was awaiting their routine winter oil supply to come in during November of 2011, but did not receive it because of a winter storm that did not permit the oil barge to make the voyage. Nome had become ice locked, and only had enough fuel to make it to March, although the next delivery was scheduled for June. The Polar Starwas undergoing her refit at the time, and the Polar Sea was in no shape to go underway, which left the Healy, and a Jones Act waiver, which permitted a Russian tanker to resupply Nome with gasoline from Dutch Harbor. The mission would not have taken 11 days, and aid from the Russians, had the US had an operational heavy-duty icebreaker deployable from Alaska, and ice-class commercial vessels.

Much like the Russians, America recognizes the importance of having a force in the arctic. However, unlike Russia, America only has plans for one new icebreaker. In the fiscal year budget for 2013, there was an allocation of $8 million to draft and contract the building of the new ship. There is a further proposal to spend $852 million from FY2014-FY2017 for the overall cost associated with procuring a brand new icebreaker.


China has made investments both financially and politically in the arctic. A study performed by arctic Institute researchers Malte Humpert and Andreas Raspotnik found that China spends more on arctic research than America. To put it into perspective, so does South Korea. Both China and South Korea spend roughly $64 million a year on arctic research, while America only spends $25 million a year.

China is not technically an arctic nation because they do not have any arctic territorial claims. However, last year they named their first transit through the arctic aboard the icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon) on a research expedition. China acquired the Xue Long from the Ukraine; it was built in 1993, then underwent a refit in 2007, and is currently undergoing another upgrade that is expected to be completed this year. China is also building a sister ship that is expected to enter service in 2014.

There is talk of China completing a commercial transit through the arctic during the summer of 2013. Going through the arctic would save time and money for Chinese shipping companies, as the distance from Shanghai to Hamburg is 2,800 nautical miles shorter via the arctic than via the Suez Canal. There are predictions that 5 to 20 percent of Chinese trade will be shipped through the arctic by 2020.

Overall there is no doubt the arctic is warming both environmentally and politically. As the ice and policy continue to change so will the traffic, infrastructure and research.

Emily Keyes is a third year Global Studies & Maritime Affairs student at California Maritime Academy and an editorial intern at pacific maritime magazine.

The USCGC Healy escorted Russian flagged oil tanker Renda to Nome, Alaska on a mission to resupply oil to the iced-in city during the winter of 2011/2012. US Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis.


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