Coast Guard commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said Wednesday the service is considering whether to arm new icebreakers in the works in response to armed Russian vessels.
Zukunft emphasized that Russia is light years ahead the U.S. in terms of developing force projection capabilities in the Arctic.
“We know Russia is probably going to launch two icebreaking corvettes with cruise missiles on them over the course of the next several years,” Zukunft said at an event hosted by the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We’re not building anything in the Navy’s surface fleet to counteract that. So what might an icebreaker of the 21st century need to do?”
As such, Zukunft argued the service should purchase three heavy and two medium icebreakers to pick up the slack, especially given that Russia has a vastly superior position in the area over the U.S. For Zukunft, Russia’s moves and investment in the region mean that Moscow is making the bold statement: “I’m here first, and everyone else, you’re going to be playing catch-up for a generation to catch up to me first.”
Without an adequate response to “exert sovereignty,” you end up looking like a “paper lion,” said Zukunft.
Just in terms of icebreakers, Russia has 40, while the U.S. only has two in service. Of those two in service, only one, the Polar Star, is fit for Arctic deployment, as the medium icebreaker the Healy is insufficient for northern conditions. The Polar Star, however, was built in the 1970s and is by no means a state-of-the-art vessel. The other vessel, the Polar Sea, is hopeless and incapable of refurbishment, as it would cost a minimum of $300 million.
“Having only one heavy icebreaker … it is the one aspect I lose sleep over,” Zukunft said.
What Zukunft wants in order to remedy the deficiency is for Congress to authorize funding for six icebreakers, so that the service can build them by 2023.
It’s not hard to see why Russia has such a strong presence in the Arctic. About 20 percent of its GDP comes from Arctic regions, whereas the same is nowhere even remotely true for the U.S.
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