Global warming is opening the Arctic to more shipping, for commerce and for exploration and exploitation. A major question for a number of seagoing countries is what opportunities — and dangers — this increased access will provide.

Everyone, it seems, wants to talk about a US icebreaker, but few have articulated a clear reason why they're needed. As often as not, critics point to the Russians. They have more than 40, while the US can field only two — of which one is very old and worn, and the other is as much a research ship as icebreaker. The "icebreaker gap" is frequently cited as a reason to build more.

But what would those icebreakers do? The Coast Guard operates the ships, but it's not up to that service to generate a national requirement for icebreakers. The Obama administration has said it wants a ship, but only one, and under current plans that ship won't begin construction until the early 2020s. Even then, it wouldn't be ready for service until the back half of the 2020s — a decade or more in the future.

Estimates forecast a ship that would cost in the high hundreds of millions, perhaps more than a billion dollars. But what characteristics does the ship need? How big, how much endurance, what kind of propulsion? Those requirements have yet to be laid out. The Coast Guard has done a commendable effort at guessing in advance what those specifications might be, but that remains guesswork based on plausible but not codified requirements.

And why just one icebreaker? Ships need maintenance and overhauls, sometimes many months at a time. If the US builds only one, that means long periods when no such ship is available. More likely three or more ships are needed to guarantee at least one is in service at any one time.

Everyone seems to want to talk about an icebreaker, but no one is leading the effort. Hopefully this will be a focus of the new administration when it takes office next year.

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