There are renewed calls from members of Congress for the new Trump administration to buy additional icebreakers for the U.S. Coast Guard, a project that has been discussed for many years. The call for additional U.S. icebreakers is usually supported by assertions that it would allow the United States to better fend off Russia in the Arctic, a nation with nearly 40 ice breakers and ambitious plans for developing its Arctic region.
New American icebreakers would certainly be useful to help the Coast Guard operate in the challenging Arctic environment, a space where human activity is increasing and thereby the need for monitoring, search and rescue, and accident response. But the United States is not in an icebreaker race with Russia. Indeed, it is perfectly understandable why Russia maintains an icebreaker fleet that is more than 10 times the size of America’s. Russia has the world’s longest Arctic coastline and draws some 20 percent of its gross domestic product from activities in the Arctic. Russia is also seeking to connect the Pacific and the Atlantic via the Northern Sea route, something that would require the ability to keep the sea lanes open at all times, along with a capability to quickly respond to emergencies at sea. Global shipping companies will not settle for less before agreeing to use the route at some future date.
Instead, Russia’s challenge in the Arctic to American security comes from the resurgence of the Russian Navy and in particular the Northern Fleet. Based in and around the Kola Peninsula in the Arctic, the Northern Fleet constitutes a high concentration of sophisticated military power only a short distance from NATO territory in northern Norway. The Northern Fleet is also home to Russia’s sea-based nuclear forces. From the Kola Peninsula, the Northern Fleet has access to the broader Atlantic, where it is increasingly active with ever more sophisticated submarines, some of which are capable of launching long-range cruise missiles against land targets. NATO’s Maritime Command recently announced that Russian submarine activity is now nearing late Cold War levels. And the Northern Fleet has already been used to make Russia’s resurgent power felt in regions far from the Arctic. For example, in 2016, the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov transited from the Kola Peninsula and into the Mediterranean Sea to conduct strikes against targets in Syria in support of the Assad regime.
The increasing level of activity and sophistication of the Northern Fleet has been noted by senior American military leaders, including then-Commander of United States European Command Gen. Philip Breedlove, who has publicly worried that Russia would be able to shut down the sea lanes between North America and Europe during a crisis, and thereby stop U.S. reinforcements from coming across the Atlantic. And these concerns are confirmed by Russia’s own exercises, along with Moscow’s recently updated maritime strategy that puts an emphasis on Russian access to the broader Atlantic.
Meeting the Russian challenge in the Arctic will not require more American icebreakers, but additional U.S. submarines and new sensor networks that can help track increasingly quiet Russian submarines. The United States will also need to work ever more closely with U.S. allies in the broader region, in particular Norway, the United Kingdom and Iceland.
The Russian Navy is back and busy in the Arctic; and it is bringing new submarines and long-range cruise missiles, not icebreakers.
Magnus Nordenman is the deputy director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and the director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative, both of which are under the purview of the Atlantic Council.