As Russia builds up its massive icebreaker fleet with cutting-edge technology to assert dominance in the Arctic, the United States may need to keep its options open with its own icebreaker buildup plan.
In a hearing before the House Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said current plans call for the service to build three medium and three heavy icebreakers, with accelerated delivery of the first heavy icebreaker in 2023. Currently, the United States has just one heavy icebreaker, the 40-year-old and poorly aging Polar Star, and one medium icebreaker, the Healy, used primarily for research expeditions.
But, Zukunft indicated, changing threats may call for more icebreakers, and possibly a more robust weapons loadout.
"We need to look differently ... at what an icebreaker does," he said. "We need to reserve space, weight and power if we need to strap a cruise missile package on it."
Russia currently has 40 icebreaking ships and is in the midst of a capability ramp-up. Two new icebreaking corvettes, equipped to carry cruise missiles, will join the Russian fleet by 2020, Zukunft said.
The six total icebreakers in the Coast Guard's build plan represent the minimum requirement for the United States in 2017, he said. But if the world changes in ways that require more or differently equipped icebreaking ships within the 30-year lifespan of the currently planned icebreakers, at least the production lines would be hot, he added.
"The advantage you have when you're building national security cutters and now you're making these more affordable in the long run, you have a hot production line," Zukunft said. "Maybe, you know, 10, 12 years from now the world changes, but at least you're producing these at an affordable price, a predictable price, and on schedule."
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat, cited recent Russian aggression in the Arctic as proof of American presence in the region. Russia is building a key shipping port on Yamal Peninsula, Siberia, he noted, and is in the midst of a major regional military buildup that includes 14 new airfields and 16 deepwater ports.
"U.S. presence in the Arctic is necessary for more than just power projection; it's a matter of national security," he said. "If [they] remain unchecked, the Russians will extend their sphere of influence to over 5 million square miles of Arctic ice and water."
The current Polar Class of heavy icebreakers is equipped with two .50-caliber machine guns and various small arms. The new ships will be part of a new class of icebreaker, and the Coast Guard is investing heavily in research to determine the specifics of those ships.
In February, the service awarded $20 million worth of contracts to five major contractors to embark on design studies and analysis, focused on ways to deliver ships faster and more efficiently and develop various designs. The studies are expected to be completed within 12 months, before the Coast Guard contracts for the first of the new icebreakers in 2019.
Meanwhile, Zukunft said, the lack of reliable icebreaking capability today means that U.S. offensive capability in the Arctic region is seasonal, limited to when the waters are ice-free. The Coast Guard, he said, is the service with sole responsibility to exercise U.S. sovereignty in the Arctic.
"And right now, we're trying to do it with a ship that's 40 years old. It is literally on life support," he said, "which is why we're going to accelerate the delivery of this first icebreaker."