Icebreakers ply polar waters, smashing open sea lanes with their heavily armored bows. Yet in addition to being equipped to do battle with the elements, should they be outfitted to take on enemy forces? Admiral Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), believes that they should. “We need to look differently … at what an icebreaker does,” he said at a recent hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee, “We need to reserve space, weight, and power if we need to strap a cruise missile package on it.”
However, adding a military dimension to U.S. icebreaker operations entails great cost and a diversion of resources from the other important missions that these vessels take on, and must be justified. In determining whether it is, there are three important considerations: (1) the threat environment necessitating such action; (2) the unique role armed icebreakers are needed to fill; and (3) the administrative challenges inherent in the procurement and operation of these ships.
The Arctic Threat Environment
The proposition for armed icebreakers rests on a certain appreciation of Arctic geopolitics. Admiral Zukunft believes that, as the Arctic melts, U.S. interests and claims will be contested, and has called out Russia and China specifically as likely challengers. A large number of pundits and policymakers are similarly of the opinion that the opening Arctic will be the next great confrontation point between great powers as they vie for territory and resources. Russia, in particular, is consistently mentioned as a source of concern. Representative Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md) has expressed his fear that, “[i]f [they] remain unchecked, the Russians will extend their sphere of influence to over 5 million square miles of Arctic ice and water.” In turn, Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Ca) has put forth that “[t]he Cold War might be over, but the U.S. and Russia are once again in direct competition in the race to gain access to the Arctic and project force from the polar region.”
This view of the Arctic, however, is hardly supported by the reality of northern relations. The Arctic is not the Wild West. Well established institutions like the Arctic Council, along with newer ones like the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, function as avenues by which Arctic states realize their broad common interests in the region, and as forums where these states reinforce, by way of statements and practice, their commitment to international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. In fact, since the waning years of the Cold War, the region has been a place of exceptional cooperation between ostensibly hostile powers—first the United States and the Soviet Union, now the United States and Russia.
It is, however, true that Arctic coastal states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States) have overlapping claims to regional territory and attendant natural resources. But, except for Hans Island (a small island claimed by both Canada and Denmark), all land territory in the Arctic is undisputedly within the sovereign borders of Arctic states. And the most vivid example of Arctic cooperation comes from the handling of disagreements over the Arctic seabed: the Ilulissat Declaration, signed by the five Arctic coastal states in 2008. Through this document, the coastal states publicly pledged to resolve regional disagreements through dialogue and the application of international law. Moreover, this declaration was a reaffirmation of these commitments since Russia made the first submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf putting forth its Arctic claim in 2001. The most belligerent Arctic country has therefore been committed to the peaceful resolution of a sensitive regional dispute for sixteen years, actively engaging in this process throughout.
In advancing the confrontational Arctic narrative, purveyors of this view frequently point to Russia’s increasing investments in regional military capabilities and its icebreaker fleet, which is considerably larger than that of the United States. Both of these developments must, however, be appraised in the context of Russia’s Arctic interests. It has the most Arctic territory of any state and a northern coastline that stretches the country’s entire length. This is both a potentially massive avenue of vulnerability as the Arctic ice sheet melts and a substantial national asset. Russia is bolstering its northern military presence in preparation for when Arctic waters become more active, and threats from that direction become more realistic. It is also seeking to develop the Northern Sea Route (the stretch of ocean immediately above the country) into a significant international shipping lane. Policing such a potentially well-traveled pathway will require substantial law enforcement and military capacity. Moreover, as it stands, roughly 20 percent of Russian exports emanate from the Arctic, and the region accounts for over 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. As global warming eases access to the Arctic’s vast natural resources, and as Russia’s more southerly resource reserves diminish, these percentages are likely to increase.
The reasons for Russia’s Arctic defense investment also undergird its relatively sizable icebreaker fleet: over 40 such vessels compared to the United States’ three (one of which is out of commission). Most of these Russian ships are not naval vessels and are spread out across Russia’s vast Arctic coastline facilitating all manner of northern maritime activity. Those that are detailed for defense predominantly serve the purpose of allowing the Russian navy year-round access to its most important bases, which are located in the Arctic. The United States does not share Russia’s large-scale Arctic needs and interests, placing the latter’s comparably substantial regional presence under a more peaceful and inwardly-focused light.
The aforementioned points should not, however, be interpreted as advocating complacency. Russia is still an untrustworthy and destabilizing actor on the international stage that must be watched intently. However, the Arctic is a place where its interests in the rule-of-law and peaceful settlement of disputes align with those of the United States, and depictions of the region as a steadily warming threat environment are largely inaccurate.
The Role of Armed Icebreakers
Despite the cooperative nature of Arctic international relations and the domestic, non-defense necessity of a large Russian icebreaker fleet, the country has recently moved to construct military variants of these vessels, spurring similar contemplations by American military leaders. Labeled “Project 23550,” Russia has commissioned two armed icebreakers, although officials state that they will be “fully featured combatants,” not just icebreakers with guns, and they are referred to as “ice-class patrol ships.” Construction of the first of these units, the Ivan Papanin, began on April 19th. Reports put forth that the vessel will have space for containerized 3M-54 Kalibr supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles and a low radar cross-section 76mm AK-176MA naval gun. It will also be outfitted with a helipad capable of accommodating a Ka-27 anti-submarine helicopter.
As far as the role that ships capable of fielding such weaponry will fill, Admiral Vladimir Korolyov of the Russian Navy said, “The new ice-class patrol ship will be built to maintain our state's protection in the Arctic strategic area.” But how will it do so?
An icebreaking warship is novel. In the most extreme case, that of serious hostilities in the Arctic involving naval surface warfare, an icebreaker’s role could theoretically be as a point vessel leading other ships into combat by clearing sea lanes. In that context, icebreakers would be critical assets requiring protection since a flotilla’s mobility would depend on them. Accordingly, anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems and torpedo countermeasures would be the most effective armaments to increase survivability. Accompanying ships, aircraft, and submarines could be relied upon for offensive capabilities.
Yet any combat theater requiring icebreakers for naval surface warfare is an environment in which surface warships would be severely compromised. Their mobility would be limited to opened sea lanes and hampered within these by the floating chunks of ice left in an icebreaker’s wake. Moreover, the vessel critical to naval surface access, the icebreaker, would lack mobility as well and would take point and therefore be incredibly vulnerable to attack. The Arctic’s ice-choked seas are simply not conducive to surface naval activity, and subsea, air, and shore-based military systems are the most effective in these conditions. Since the Arctic coastal states consist of Russia and NATO members, all would likely be able to field the advanced weaponry necessary to effectively counter an armed icebreaker and any surface warships accompanying it.
The advanced military capabilities of Arctic states would additionally severely diminish or negate the value of an armed icebreaker as a method of offshore power projection in the region.
These vessels could also be deployed as escorts for supply ships moving through the Arctic in wartime, an important role for Russia given its relatively massive Arctic military presence and population. This would perhaps be a more sensical application if the icebreakers were used in concert with complementary assets, such as submarines, that can mitigate their mobility issues.
However, since the chance of large-scale conflict in the Arctic is remote, armed icebreakers will likely find themselves used primarily for routine law enforcement and search and rescue missions. And the armed icebreakers that are currently in service in Norway and Denmark are good examples of this.
Norway’s Svalbard is armed with a Bofors 57mm dual-purpose naval gun that can be used against missiles, aerial targets, and sea craft. (The design for Canada’s forthcoming Harry DeWolf-class patrol vessels is based on the Svalbard.) In turn, Denmark’s Knud Rasmussen-class patrol ships are each armed with an Otobreda 76mm super rapid gun and two 12.7mm Browning .50 caliber machine guns. They are also equipped with a missile launcher that can fire Evolved Sea Sparrow anti-missile and anti-aerial craft missiles and MU90 ASW torpedoes. Although armed, these vessels are “more accurately described as coast guard ships on steroids rather than naval ships,” and that is how they are used; deployed to patrol northern waters in a constabulary capacity.
Given the relative ineffectiveness of icebreakers as warships, and surface naval warfare in the Arctic generally, the inclusion of cruise missiles on Russia’s newest ships is peculiar. The most likely explanation is that the design choice is an act of muscle flexing. Russia will have the only icebreaking warships, and reports of this fact have put many pundits and policymakers in other Arctic states on edge. Although of marginal utility, and despite not even being completed, the vessels are proving to be a potent means of intimidation in guarding Russia’s historical Arctic dominion. This interpretation is further bolstered by the fact that the icebreakers’ cruise missile capacity is for containerized launch platforms. Thus, the armament can be easily removed and other equipment can be deployed instead. Since the missiles are unlikely to be particularly useful, they may not often be present once the ships enter active service.
All of this goes to show that the role for a potential armed U.S. icebreaker is not as a warship and that the allocation of space for cruise missiles, as Admiral Zukunft advocates, would probably be a waste of money and valuable surface area. As the Arctic opens up to human activity, law enforcement and search and rescue capabilities will continue to be the most important icebreaker missions, and lighter armaments in the form of those found on the Norwegian and Danish ships, and on other USCG cutters, are far more practical.
Administering Armed Icebreakers
The oddity of the USCG seeking cruise missiles for its vessels must also be stressed. The Coast Guard is the only branch of the armed forces not part of the Department of Defense. Rather, it falls under the Department of Homeland Security, and its primary missions are broadly defined as ensuring maritime security, safety, and stewardship. In the security realm, the USCG secures ports, waterways, and coastal areas and conducts maritime interdictions (primarily targeting drug and migrant activity). It is also mandated by statute to maintain “defense readiness.” But this does not involve preparing to face enemy armed forces. Rather, the USCG must be ready to function as a specialized service of the U.S. Navy in time of war if ordered to by the President. In such a situation, the Coast Guard will still largely carry out its existing primary functions but will do so under the direction of the Navy so the country can field a more coordinated maritime military effort.
Given its mission, the USCG does not field weaponry meant for military engagements. The installation of cruise missile platforms on icebreakers would, therefore, represent a substantial shift in service capabilities and responsibilities, and issues of icebreaker administration might arise.
First, would the icebreakers be armed with cruise missiles on a permanent basis? If so, this would require the devotion of space, resources, and manpower to these systems during every outing, detracting from those available to fulfill other responsibilities—the arguably more important and consistent responsibilities of law enforcement and safety. If not, this could entail complicated, time consuming, and expensive refitting during port calls depending on the ship’s primary mission during any given deployment.
Second, fielding military combat weaponry requires both simulated and live-fire drills to maintain their readiness and crew capacity. Would the armed icebreakers train solo, as part the Navy’s Arctic readiness plans, or both? In any case, this would add another time-consuming and costly dimension to ensuring icebreaker readiness. The vessels and crew would have to be prepared for law enforcement, search and rescue, and defense scenarios. This could stretch them quite thin and diminish capabilities for each mission.
Finally, the installation and upkeep of advanced cruise missile systems would create a significant new expense for the USCG, which is facing budgetary issues and having trouble meeting its current responsibilities. Finding the money for the installation and upkeep of these systems could prove problematic.
Overall, the administrative challenges inherent in the USCG taking on quasi-warships and warfighting responsibilities are potentially considerable. As a military service, it is currently ill-prepared and ill-equipped to do so.
Rather than seeking to burden future icebreakers with expensive and impractical weaponry, the USCG should concentrate on sensible expansion of the U.S. icebreaker fleet to meet its obligations in an increasingly accessible and active Arctic. The design process for these vessels should focus on law enforcement and search and rescue, the typical missions of a Coast Guard cutter. There exists an “icebreaker gap,” but not between the number of American and Russian icebreakers, or their armaments. The gap is between U.S. icebreaking needs and capabilities. Cruise missile discussions and other defense considerations will only bog down an acquisition process that is already considerably behind in providing much needed additional U.S. icebreaking capacity.
In addition to practically procuring new icebreakers, the USCG should more actively engage in discussions concerning the construction of an Arctic deepwater port. Such a facility is an important long-term investment that will eventually provide the service a northern staging area once climate change and commensurate increasing Arctic activity necessitate a permanent regional presence.
Ultimately, there are meaningful steps that the USCG should take to prepare itself for an opening Arctic, but seeking to arm future icebreakers with cruise missiles or other advanced warfighting technology is not one of them. Such weaponry serves little practical purpose and would detract from the Coast Guard’s core responsibilities, and this will hopefully be realized as the service’s icebreaker acquisition process proceeds.
Andreas Kuersten is a law clerk with the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF). He previously worked for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Arctic projects and was a fellow with the Arctic Summer College. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not represent those of CAAF or the U.S. Government.