The Arctic is shaping up to be one of the most strategically important regions in the 21st century. However, the United States has fallen far behind in building the specialized ships necessary to traverse the region’s treacherous waters.
On June 10, Russia launched its first new military icebreaker in half a century. The Ilya Muromets, a diesel icebreaker displacing 6,000 tons, will now begin supporting Russian naval operations in the Arctic.
Just days later, the Ilya Muromets’ launch was upstaged when Russia floated the largest icebreaker in history. The nuclear-powered Arktika displaces 33,500 tons and is the first of three planned hulls.
Russia even plans on adding two icebreaking patrol ships armed with cruise missiles by 2020.
While Russia has been steadfastly building its Arctic capabilities, the U.S. nearly lost its only heavy polar icebreaker on an Antarctica deployment. Only quick thinking and tireless effort by Coast Guard personnel averted a failure that would have stranded the aging Polar Star near Antarctica.
This is emblematic of the disparity between Russian and U.S. capabilities in the strategically important Arctic. Russia has launched as many icebreakers in June as the U.S. Coast Guard has launched in the past 40 years. With the Arktika and the Ilya Muromets, the Russian government now possesses 24 icebreakers. Nineteen more are operated by Russian companies. The U.S. sails two.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft acknowledged, “We’re not even in the same league as Russia right now” in the Arctic.
To make matters worse, the Polar Star just celebrated its 40th birthday and is now operating far beyond its intended lifespan. It is set to be decommissioned in 2022 with no replacement for at least several years. That would leave the Coast Guard with only one active icebreaker, the Healy, which cannot operate in the Arctic during the colder months.
Full article: Russia Continues to Dominate Arctic as US Struggles to Procure Icebreakers (The Daily Signal)