US to challenge Russia’s Arctic grip
The United States says it will invest billions of dollars in an icebreaking fleet that can navigate thick ice to challenge Russia’s dominance in the Arctic, as it tries to open supply routes to East Asia.
Naval commanders in the Pentagon have repeatedly criticised the lack of any clear strategy from Washington for the Arctic as global warming opens shipping lanes. The US coastguard has just two operational icebreakers, compared with 45 Russian vessels.
Russia has 11 more icebreakers in planning or development, including three nuclear-powered ships that are scheduled to be completed by 2020. It is building up its Arctic military muscle to remove the ocean’s untapped oil and natural gas resources.
Russia is building the 300-metre, US$320-million tankers to penetrate the Arctic ice.
“The vessel has to be able to perform her tasks in extremely harsh conditions,” said Mika Hovilainen, an icebreaking specialist at Aker Arctic Technology, a Finnish firm that designed the ships. “Systems have to work properly in a very wide range of temperatures.”
The fleet’s hulls are designed to bend the edge of the ice sheet down, snapping the sheet with pressure distributed across the icy surface. In ice thicker than 2 metres, a tanker’s stern or rear faces forward.
The first Russian tanker, which began operating in December, can apparently travel at 7.2 knots stern-forward in thick ice. It negotiated the northern sea route from Siberia to the Bering Strait in a record six and a half days.
China currently has one icebreaker but has an extensive building programme that has also caused US uneasiness.
The US defence secretary, James Mattis, issued a national defence strategy document in January saying Washington’s key military priority was to prepare for a “great-power competition” with Russia and China. The Pentagon is warning that in the Arctic, the US is lagging behind in capability and technology.
The new ships appear to be on their way as Congress passed the US$717-billion defence authorisation bill.
Donald Trump is due to sign the bill into law soon to allow for the purchase of six icebreakers, the first of which is intended to be completed by 2023. Each is due to cost an estimated US$800 million.
The US currently has one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is more than 40 years old. There are two other smaller ships but one of them, the Polar Sea, is not operational and only used for spare parts. The third, Healy (pictured), is a medium-weight vessel which was designed for scientific research.
The United States icebreaker Healy. Picture credit: Overview