WASHINGTON ― The U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaker capability must grow to counter Russian and Chinese activities in the Arctic, the service’s commandant told lawmakers Thursday.

Polar ice has steadily decreased over the last few decades, opening potential new trade routes that could link Asia, North America and Europe.

During a hearing with the House Homeland Security Committee’s transportation and maritime security panel, Adm. Linda Fagan emphasized the need to build an icebreaker fleet capable of maintaining a strong presence in the Arctic region, specifically pointing to polar security cutters.

“We are an Arctic nation,” Fagan said. “Getting the capability and capacity to create an enduring presence in the Arctic, in the waters off Alaska are absolutely a priority.”

Production for the first polar security cutters began this year. Shipbuilder VT Halter Maritime is manufacturing the first PSC under a fixed-price contract, expected to conclude in 2025.

The Coast Guard will eventually receive three heavy icebreakers, followed by three medium icebreakers. The Coast Guard requested $167.2 million in the fiscal 2023 budget to continue production of the PSCs, while also seeking $30.1 million to operate a commercially available icebreaker as it waits.

The U.S. has in recent years run a stark PSC deficit against other Arctic powers, such as Russia. Russia now has more than 40 active icebreakers, including roughly 10 nuclear-powered variants, according to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Office of Waterways and Ocean Policy.

The U.S. operates two icebreakers ― the heavy Polar Star and the medium Healy. That capability difference, Fagan argued, makes clear “why it is so critical” to close the gap in icebreaker capabilities.

For its part, China in 2018 declared itself a “near-arctic power” in its Arctic policy document, with a focus on shoring up energy security as Beijing works to move its economy off of coal.

“As [China] operates around the world, presence and access, I believe, is their interest, which is why it becomes so critical for us as an Arctic nation to have a presence on the water in the Arctic to ensure our own national sovereignty,” Fagan said.

As the planet warms, a more equipped Coast Guard will have to tackle rising problems, said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., who chairs the House subcommittee.

“An ever-changing geopolitical landscape and new challenges from climate change mean that the Coast Guard has never been more essential to America’s national security,” she added.

Zamone “Z” Perez is a reporter at Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.

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