The Coast Guard’s proposed heavy icebreaker for the Arctic comes with something no previous model ever had: room for cruise missiles.
While military control of the frozen tundras at the top of the world has become a political and national security imperative to Washington and Moscow for years, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft quietly confirmed last week that the service’s newest fleet of heavy icebreaker ships will be designed for the first time to carry heavy weapons.
That announcement, just as Russia is beefing up its much-larger fleet of icebreakers plying the Arctic waters, is the clearest sign that a literal and figurative Cold War may be heating up at the top of the world.
Backers of arming American icebreakers say the move is long overdue because the Coast Guard ships are the only American heavy vessels able to traverse the massive glaciers and ice drifts that pockmark the Arctic waterways.
Opponents say arming the Coast Guard vessels sends a dangerous signal to Moscow that Washington is looking for a fight over the Arctic while there is a wary but real cooperation in place among the nations of the region.
“This is not just about [new] icebreakers; this is part of a broader competition just below the surface,” said former Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.
Budget hawks also say the cash-strapped Coast Guard may be trying to take advantage of rising tensions in the polar regions to pursue a potentially costly and ultimately unnecessary weapons program. Service leaders, including Adm. Zukunft, have pushed back, arguing that the U.S. cannot afford not to have an armed presence as the Arctic’s natural resources become more accessible and potentially strategic sea lanes open up.
The Coast Guard now has just three icebreakers, including one that does primarily scientific research. Russia, with the world’s largest Arctic coastline and ports across the region, reportedly has at least 40 icebreakers, including four operational nuclear-powered icebreakers and 16 medium-sized craft.
At a defense conference last week, the Coast Guard chief said the first of the new icebreakers could be ready in five years and cost less than $1 billion. All told, the service is seeking six new icebreakers, including three of the largest size.
“We’ve been able to find offsets to drive the cost down … [and] reserve the space weight and power necessary to fully weaponize these and make these a capable platform offensively in the event this world changes in the next five, 10, even 15 years from now,” Adm. Zukunft said.
“You can’t project out the status quo,” he added, according to a report from Breakingdefense.com.
Aside from Russia, other Arctic nations have already outfitted their icebreaker fleets with various types of weapons.
The Norwegian KV Svalbard heavy icebreaker is armed with a Bofors 57-mm multimission deck gun that can be used to take out incoming missiles, attacking aircraft and light warships. Canadian forces are reportedly modeling the armaments for its new Harry DeWolf-class Arctic patrol ships on Norway’s Svalbard.
The arsenal aboard Denmark’s Kund Rasmussen-class Arctic patrol ships, however, is much more advanced than those of its regional neighbors. The ship sports an Otobreda 76-mm super-rapid gun and two machine guns. The Danish icebreaker can also fire anti-air missiles and MU90 anti-submarine torpedoes.
Adm. Zukunft declined to provide specifics on the types of weapons the new icebreaker ships would be able to carry during his remarks to the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium in Crystal City, Virginia, last week. But he has previously called for the ships to be equipped with cruise missile technology in the coming years.
Coast Guard ship designers and engineers are drafting plans for the icebreakers, which are not expected to hit the fleet until 2030, with the modular weapons concept in mind.
Moscow has unveiled plans to develop two new icebreaker vessels armed with cruise missiles, which are expected to enter the Russian fleet within the next two years.
While remaining mum on the types of weaponry needed for the Coast Guard fleet based in the Arctic, Adm. Zukunft did note that the new icebreaker ships could be outfitted with a modular weapons system — one that can be installed and removed from the vessel’s decks with minimal effort, depending on the mission’s requirements.
The Russian icebreaker vessels will not sport modular weapon systems, but rather embedded systems permanently affixed to the warship.
Turning up the heat
Analysts say U.S. and Russian military strategists are responding to the evolving challenge of the Arctic — and the possibility that it could soon become much more valuable territory economically and militarily.
The glacial territories in the Arctic remain “the quickest route between Russia and the U.S. It is even the quickest route between North Korea and the U.S.,” said Bryan Clark, former special assistant to the chief of naval operations.
“There are a fair amount of military operations that happen in and around the Arctic,” said Mr. Clark, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. In any international conflict involving the U.S., Russia or other state actors, “the Arctic would be at play.”
The Coast Guard’s call for arming icebreakers “certainly confirms [the threat] is real,” in the polar regions, said Capt. Hendrix.
While the situation in the Arctic Circle poses challenges to Washington and its allies in the region, the U.S. “is not really in an arms race with Russia” for control of the polar regions, despite the Coast Guard’s call for weaponized icebreakers, said Mr. Clark.
Russia’s expanding icebreaker fleet is driven more by domestic needs than the Kremlin’s desire to flex its military might in the region, he said.
The Russian Arctic coastline dwarfs that of the U.S. and its allies, requiring Moscow to invest in more and more capable icebreakers. Aside from traditional defensive operations, a significant portion of Russia’s surface and submarine fleet are based in cold water ports, requiring a number of icebreaker ships to be on hand to ensure operations are carried out, said Mr. Clark.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive military moves in Ukraine and Syria have some Western strategists wary of his ultimate plans for the Arctic as well.
“The Russians have tried to assert a territoriality” in the Arctic, Mr. Hendrix said, to preclude the U.S. or its allies from operating in the region militarily while ensuring Moscow has exclusive mining and drilling rights into the seabed below the North Pole and surrounding areas. The move is similar to China’s overtures against the U.S. and its Pacific partners in the South China Sea, Mr. Hendrix said.
Russia has already petitioned the United Nations to recognize the entire continental shelf, portions of which already reside within the country’s borders but extend into the polar regions, as Russian sovereign territory.
“We can only assess [Russia] will behave as aggressively [in the Arctic] as they have in their other territorial claims,” Mr. Hendrix said.
But comparing the competition in the Arctic to the scramble in the South China Sea “is a lot like apples and oranges,” said CSBA’s Mr. Clark. Unlike the South China Sea, many of the projected oil and natural gas reserves in the Arctic fall in nondisputed areas with various nations holding certified claims to those areas.
The level of uncertainty in the Arctic is not the same as in the Pacific, Mr. Clark said.
Further, Washington and Moscow have pursued a strategy of cooperation and bilateral engagement between their naval forces in the region. Weaponized icebreakers in the polar region have “nothing to do with the military situation in the Arctic,” which is more focused on submarine operations and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, Mr. Clark said.
The siren call from the Coast Guard for modular cruise missiles aboard their icebreakers, to ward off Russian aggression akin to Chinese actions in the Pacific is guard officials “jumping on this South China Sea bandwagon” to generate support for the ships among congressional appropriators, Mr. Clark said.
Adm. Zukunft “may have leaned a little too far out ahead of his skis” in calling for cruise-missile-equipped icebreakers, said Mr. Clark, adding that the Coast Guard is essentially “creating a demand signal [for weapons] that just is not there.”
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