It's true that ice is melting in the Arctic, but this doesn't mean the U.S. no longer needs icebreaker ships to operate in the region. And right now, the U.S. needs more than what it currently has.
The Navy doesn't operate icebreakers, but the Coast Guard does. According to its website, the Coast Guard currently has only two operational icebreakers in its fleet.
"Strategically, icebreakers provide persistent presence in a way that's not met by anything else in the maritime region," Randy Kee, who serves as the senior advisor for arctic security affairs with the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies, said. "Remember, the Arctic is a maritime region, and icebreaking provides you year-round access to be able to go in the region."
With ice melting in the Arctic — but not entirely gone — routes of passage for shipping are opening up there in ways that have not existed before. Additionally, there are ample opportunities for commercial fishing and the mining of minerals. By some estimates, there is as much as 90 billion barrels of oil yet untapped in the Arctic.
U.S. access to the region will require that all nations operating in the Arctic play by internationally established rules. But unless the U.S. can operate freely there — which will surely require the use of icebreakers — it may not be able to participate in the opportunities opening up or protect its interests.
"You need icebreaking to be able to project year-round presence and when it's [of] your time and choosing," Kee said during a virtual panel discussion today with the Atlantic Council.
Currently, six new polar icebreakers capable of operating in the Arctic are authorized for bolstering the Coast Guard's icebreaking fleet, Kee said, adding that the Coast Guard has said they need all six of them. According to a Coast Guard spokesperson, there are no plans right now retire to either of the Coast Guard's existing icebreakers.
Kee also addressed concerns about the Russian Federation's own "vast number of icebreakers."
He said that while the Russians do use some of those icebreakers to maintain a sovereign presence in the Arctic, others are necessary for running logistics operations in the region, where Russian communities dot the coast of the Arctic Ocean.
"They also use [them] for logistics support to their northern communities, because they don't have any other way to get the products to those communities," he said.