WASHINGTON — The U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaking capability must expand to counter Russian and Chinese activity in the Arctic, the service’s commander told lawmakers Thursday.
Polar ice has steadily shrunk in recent decades, opening up potential new trade routes that could link Asia, North America and Europe.
During a hearing with the House Homeland Security Committee’s Maritime and Transportation Security Committee, Adm. Linda Fagan stressed the need to build an icebreaker fleet capable of maintaining a strong presence in the Arctic region, pointing specifically to polar security cutters.
“We are an Arctic nation,” Fagan said. “Getting the capacity and capability to create a sustainable presence in the Arctic, in the waters off Alaska, is absolutely a priority.”
The production of the first polar safety cutters started this year. Shipbuilder VT Halter Maritime is manufacturing the first PSC under a fixed-price contract, which is expected to close 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 year 2023 budget to continue production of PSCs, while also seeking $30.1 million to operate a commercially available icebreaker in the meantime.
The United States has in recent years recorded a significant deficit of PSC vis-à-vis other Arctic powers, such as Russia. Russia now has more than 40 active icebreakers, including about 10 nuclear-powered variants, according to the US Coast Guard’s Office of Waterways and Oceans.
The United States operates two icebreakers, the heavy Polar Star and the medium Healy. This difference in capabilities, Fagan explained, clearly shows “why it is so important” to close the gap in icebreaker capabilities.
For its part, China in 2018 declared itself a “near-Arctic power” in its Arctic policy document, emphasizing boosting energy security as Beijing strives to exit its economy. coal.
“As [China] operates worldwide, presence and access, I believe, is their interest, which is why it becomes so essential for us as an Arctic nation to have an on-water presence in the Arctic to ensure our own national sovereignty,” Fagan said.
As the planet warms, a more equipped Coast Guard will need to tackle growing problems, said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, DN.J., who chairs the House subcommittee.
“An ever-changing geopolitical landscape and the new challenges of climate change mean that the Coast Guard has never been more essential to American national security,” she added.