The Arctic: Is the United States out in the cold?

The last article in this space (The Kara Gate — and beyond) opened the general subject of the Arctic and its awakening. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported the November 2010 Arctic ice extent as being the second lowest over the previous 31 years of satellite observations — confirming that ice in the Arctic Sea continues its long-term decline and “remains younger and thinner than in previous decades.†Not only has its extent continued to decline, but so has the oldest (five years plus) and thickest ice which “has disappeared almost entirely from the Arctic.† 

While reality occasionally trumps prediction, it is a fact that the Arctic is stirring from the planet’s slow warming trend, and close astern of the departing ice is commerce. “Commerce†carries with it many enterprises, both direct and indirect: resource exploration, extraction, transport, trans-Arctic sea routes from Barents to Bering; intra-Arctic destination shipping, tourism, etc.; not to mention countless peripheral support services — supporting infrastructure, service vessels, nav aids, patrols, emergency, etc., virtually add infinitum.

Also noted last time was the expansion of focus from the fabled Northwest Passage of history to now include that of its mirror image across the pole — the Northeast Passage so long hidden behind the Russo-Siberian Ice Curtain, providing another (alternate) northern inter-hemispheric passageway from Kara Gate to the Bering Strait — the Northern Sea Route (NSR). 

 Predictions are that cargo transport via the NSR will increase tenfold in 10 years! That estimate is based upon predictions such as the disappearance of Arctic summer ice in five years. Expectations are for:

• Increased use of trans-Arctic routes for intercontinental shipping via both the Northwest Passage and its distant relative across the pole, the Northeast Passage — the NSR.

• Rapid expansion of intra-Arctic shipping as vast Siberian watersheds open.

• Accelerated expansion of Arctic resource exploration, recovery and transport.

• Promotion of the Arctic as a destination.

Denmark and Russia have signed a delimitation treaty, settling longstanding disputes over seabed claims in the Barents Sea. Russia has planted a flag on the seabed at the North Pole — perhaps more ceremonial than claim, but assuredly a statement as to what is brewing in the Arctic. 

China is sending the largest non-nuclear icebreaker in the world on a single-season, circum-Arctic transit originating in the Sea of Japan, thence via the Bering Strait, the NSR, a stop in Iceland and completing the circuit back to the Strait by way of the Northwest Passage. Xue Long (“Snow Dragonâ€) displacing 21,250 tons is 548 feet in length with a beam of 74 feet. China adding its “statementâ€!    

Foreign operational icebreaker fleets are reported to be as follows: Russia (18), Finland (9), Canada (6), Sweden (5). It is important not to overlook the word “operational,†especially when considering the current U.S. icebreaker capability status. Transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard in the mid-1960s, the U.S. icebreaker fleet consisted of eight Polar-class ships capable of performing icebreaking missions in the polar regions. By the late 1980s those vessels had been decommissioned as new, more powerful vessels came into service.

With the commissioning of two heavy-duty Polar-class vessels, Polar Star in 1976 and Polar Sea in 1978 and a medium-duty icebreaker Healy in 1999 (primarily devoted to research), the U.S. icebreaker fleet consisted of three vessels. To put the relative capabilities of “heavy-duty†vs. “medium-duty†in perspective:

    • ice-ramming capability: 21 feet vs. 8 feet;  

    • icebreaking: 6 feet vs. 4.5 feet;

    • displacement :12,000 tons vs. 8,000 tons; 

    • operating capability: all Arctic ice-covered waters vs. moderate multiyear ice.

In January 2011, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), “as part of (its) oversight responsibilities to promote economy, efficiency and effectiveness within the department,†issued a report “addressing the strengths and weaknesses of the Coast Guard’s Polar Icebreaker Maintenance, Upgrade and Acquisition Program† (OIG-11-31).

The mandates of 14 USC § 2 and 6 USC § 468, require that the “Coast Guard develop, establish, maintain and operate the United States icebreaking fleet in the Polar Regions,†and, additionally, under 14 USC § 141 the Coast Guard is to “provide icebreaking services to the National Science Foundation.†It should be noted that while it is the Coast Guard on which these mandates are imposed, the “Executive Summary†portion of the OIG report stated that “the Coast Guard does not have the necessary budgetary control over its icebreakers, nor does it have a sufficient number of icebreakers to accomplish its mission in the Polar Regions.†It goes on to point out that  “the Coast Guard has only one operational icebreaker, making it necessary for the United States to contract with foreign nations to perform scientific missions, logistical and supply activities …  the Coast Guard will lose critical icebreaking expertise, and may be beholden to foreign nations to perform its statutory missions.â€

It should be noted that the “one operational icebreaker†alluded to above is Healy, typed as “medium-duty†icebreaker, whose design and operation are directed primarily to research. Requesting aid from foreign nations in carrying out “its statutory missions†has already occurred in the Antarctic: “the extreme ice conditions have necessitated the use of foreign vessels to perform the McMurdo break-in.†— support and resupply of McMurdo station.  

Not only are the “assets†necessary for the Coast Guard to carry out its statutory requirements unavailable at present and unlikely within the foreseeable future, the problem sinks even deeper into the morass created by Congress as is clearly documented by the OIG’s report of Jan. 19, 2011. It must be read to be believed. (On the Internet as OIG-11-31).

In 2006, Congress shifted funding to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and under a Memorandum of Agreement in effect, the Coast Guard must submit a yearly budget plan for approval by the NSF — giving the NSF the authority to determine how the funds will be spent on maintenance, upgrades and tasking of the Coast Guard’s icebreakers. The Coast Guard must submit a yearly budget plan for approval by the NSF!! Thus the Coast Guard was left with the responsibility for fulfilling (ALL) its statutory obligations with little or no budgetary or management control; in effect, the Coast Guard is unable to conduct its own icebreaking missions (which go light-years beyond research) without first obtaining NSF “approval.â€

 It gets worse. The report goes on to state, “NSF’s budgetary authority does not require NSF to conduct maintenance on icebreaking ships. As a result, maintenance has been deferred, which has affected the ships’ long-term operability. Because the NSF’s primary use of icebreakers has been to conduct scientific research, it schedules the ships to fulfill that mission. The Coast Guard’s missions go beyond science support. The Coast Guard should have the funding and authority to perform the full range of mission responsibilities within its icebreaking program.â€

“Over the past 3 years, the NSF has only used the Polar Sea an average of 101 of the available 185 days … (but) … the Coast Guard has been unable to use the ship’s remaining days to meet its mission requirements because it does not have budgetary control for the ship.†

Polar Sea is currently disabled with, as reported in The New York Times, pistons of five of her six engines “essentially welded to their sleeves,†and unlikely to see service until 2013. Polar Star is currently undergoing reactivation work.

It has been estimated that fully one-quarter of the world’s sub-sea fossil resources are Arctic. The shipping, infrastructure, navigation, safety and environmental requirements will be near-overwhelming. Two aspects come to mind — the ability to deal with ice, and the ability (legal as well as physical readiness) to make territorial claims via an extended continental shelf beyond the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone).

This article has looked at the congressionally created debacle regarding the icebreaker situation and next time — a look at the Senate’s refusal to ratify UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) leaving the United States out in the cold (so to speak) in its ability to deal with the shelf issue. These activities, plus myriad others, beg the question as to the readiness of the United States and whether Washington is even aware that there is, in fact, an Arctic.

Prior to his retirement, former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen ventured the warning that it was time for the United States to develop a policy for the Arctic, stating that the United States “faces a looming crisis when it comes to operating in the Arctic Circle†and that a government decision on how to proceed “cannot happen soon enough.â€

In the recent U.S. Coast Guard Commandant’s State of the Coast Guard report, Adm. Robert Papp called attention to the U.S. strategic interests in the emerging Arctic waters: “If we are serious about protecting our Arctic national interests and resources then we must make the investment to do so.†

There is a glimmer of hope. Although the administration’s 2012 proposed budget places the icebreaker budget within the request for the Coast Guard, final transfer of the icebreaker budget awaits congressional fiscal budget approval.

Today a popular Murmansk, Russia, tourist attraction is the world’s first nuclear powered icebreaker. Entering service in 1959, Lenin served for some 30 years until finally taken out of service and brought to Murmansk as a museum ship. Not only have nine nuclear powered vessels been built for the Russian Federation’s icebreaker fleet, operated by Rosatomflot, but plans are underway to build a new generation of nuclear powered vessels for Arctic operation, the first due for sea trials in 2015.

Meanwhile, in Washington …?

About the Author:

Following graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy, Jim Austin served aboard both a destroyer and cruiser with duties that included navigator, assistant CIC (combat information center) officer and air intercept controller. He subsequently worked on the submarine launched ballistic missile program for the General Electric Co.’s Ordnance Division. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard master’s license and writes frequently on ship collisions as seen through the twin lenses of the navigation rules and maritime law. He’s a retired physician living in Burlington, Vt.

By Professional Mariner Staff