On August 30, Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, the last “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan, stepped onto a C-17 cargo plane, ending U.S. presence in the country after two decades. Within a day, President Joe Biden delivered a speech on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The withdrawal was a catastrophic failure, so explaining the horrible situation was a tough sell. Biden’s speech predictably flopped, but the speechwriters managed to make a few salvageable points. The most salient was this: “The world is changing. We’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia.” Both China and Russia are emboldened by American failure in Afghanistan, but that is not our only weak point. An often overlooked area of geostrategic importance is the Arctic, and if the United States does not get serious about having operational capacity in the region, we will likely face future disaster and be outcompeted by Russia, or even China.
While there is significant debate on the impacts of climate change, and how much of it is man-made, its reality is most obvious in the Arctic. Since 1979, summer sea ice coverage has decreased by around 14 percent per decade, and there are no signs that this trend will reverse. This decrease in ice cover has made the waters of the Arctic more navigable. Some estimate that by 2050, there will be periods of the year when even the North Pole is no longer covered by locked ice. One would think that less ice would make maritime transit safer, but it creates new challenges. A lack of solid ice leads to more free-moving icebergs, which threaten offshore drilling operations and vessels, particularly ones that are not properly equipped and designed to operate in the Arctic environment. Constantly shifting ice also leads to the rapid obsolescence of ice charts and the need for highly skilled helmsmen for vessels navigating the Arctic.
The United States has little ability to respond if a man-made or natural disaster occurs in the Arctic. Icebreakers are needed to clear sea lanes to ensure safe conditions in the region, and the United States has only two functional vessels that meet these needs, the USCG Polar Star and the USCGC Healy. Polar Star is a heavy icebreaker that was commissioned in 1976. It consistently deals with onboard fires and mechanical failures and will soon be inoperable. Healy is a medium icebreaker and can only crack through about 8 feet of ice whereas a heavy icebreaker can crack through 10 feet. While the Healy is in better shape than the Polar Star, it is not without issue. In late 2020, Healy had to abandon an Arctic mission due to an electrical fire that damaged propulsion systems; it took nearly a year to get it operational again. Healy will likely be the only operable U.S. military icebreaker within a year or so, and with the possibility of obligations at both the northern and southern poles, the U.S. would need to decide whether to commission a new icebreaker or to rely on foreign support.
The United States’ main regional competitor, Russia, is far more equipped to operate in the region. Russia has a fleet of over 30 government and quasi-government-operated icebreakers, including a nuclear-powered vessel, the first in a scheduled series of atomic mega-icebreakers. With this fleet, the Russians have a strong operational capacity in the polar regions. Russia has planned ahead and recognizes that the Arctic will likely become central to its economy in the long-term future.
Russia has this large fleet to help manage the underutilized and possibly most important trade route in the world, the Northern Sea Route. The Northern Sea Route, stretching from Asia to Europe over Russia’s northern coast, is more accessible than it has been in the past. This route cuts time and fuel use compared to the traditional Asia to Europe route through the Suez Canal. It also avoids volatile regions like the Gulf of Aden and the South China Sea. Russia claims sovereignty over the Northern Sea Route as internal waters, while the United States and many other countries consider it an international waterway. But without an American ability to operate in the region, Russia can dictate what passes along the trade route. China, which has close ties with Russia, will greatly benefit from the growing trade on the route and is building an icebreaker fleet of its own. In 2020, a year of global economic downturn, tonnage that transited the Northern Sea Route grew by 83 percent, reinforcing ties between Russia and China, making them wealthier, and increasing European reliance on both of those countries. With time, these problems will only become more deeply entrenched and harder to respond to.
The United States has been kicking the can down the road on its icebreaker fleet for far too long. In recent years, Congress has mandated the acquisition of three polar security cutters (heavy icebreakers) and three Arctic security cutters (medium icebreakers). The Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Karl Schultz, recommends the U.S. needs six heavies, but so far Congress has only allocated enough funding for two, about $1.8 billion. The price tag is around $1 billion for the first icebreaker and decreases with each new one. This might seem expensive, but when one considers that the U.S. spent around $300 million a day in Afghanistan during that war, it is quite reasonable. The U.S. has significant ground to make up compared to Russia in Arctic operability, but it is not too late. The longer bureaucratic red tape and defense contractor negotiations slow things down, the more likely an event occurs at one of the poles that requires an American response.
The polar regions, particularly the Arctic, will be increasingly important in the coming decades. While the United States should carefully reflect on our past 20 years in Afghanistan, we should also look forward to the next 20. America should never be as woefully unprepared for the next crisis as it was with the Afghan withdrawal, nor should we be outcompeted economically.
Building operational capacity in the Arctic is one small and cost-effective way the United States can maintain its global power.