USS Annapolis in the Arctic Ocean after surfacing through three feet of ice during Ice Exercise 2009.
After Secretary Gates’ explosive speech at the Navy League conference on Monday, there was only enough time for one question from the audience. After calling into question the ability of Big Deck Navy to defend itself against irregular threats and flat out telling the Navy that its budget will remain static in the near-term, the question that was asked—which has been ignored in the sturm and drang over the speech itself—probably surprised some people.
Gates was asked about the Arctic.
Specifically, he was asked if the Navy or Coast Guard were investing in new icebreakers in preparation for the seasonal Arctic navigational routes that are expected to be open by the 2030s, and the commercial fishing and resource extraction traffic that many expect to infiltrate the region over the coming decades. The questioner (I didn’t catch his name) also asked about the ice breaker gap between the United States and Russia. The Russians have 18 modern, nuclear-powered icebreakers, compared to the three USCG vessels.
Gates started with a somewhat canned response, admitting that “we haven’t done too much advanced planning in terms of additional ice breaker capability, at least in the Navy.” He then added that “receding Arctic ice and the possibility of that shipping area being open during the good part of the year, this is something that we would clearly have to address and invest some resources in, along with our Canadian friends.”
What the questioner was getting at was the precarious state of the U.S. Coast Guard’s ice breaker assets, two of which were commissioned in 1976 and 1978, (the third was put to sea in 2000) and are beginning to require extensive repairs to stay afloat. One ship — the 34-year-old Polar Star — has been in dock since 2006 being refitted, heading back to sea in 2013. With more maritime traffic sure to head to the Arctic region in the near future; with Canada and Russia eying each other warily across the shrinking ice cap; and with the Chinese building the worlds’ largest icebreaker in order to further its exploration of the region, I stand with a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report, which says that “more robust operational icebreaker fleet is essential for supporting U.S. military operations, maintaining U.S. presence, and preserving U.S. economic and other interests throughout the region.”
I’ll have a lot more on this in the June issue of DTI in a longer feature on Arctic strategies for the 21st century.