Like a ship moving through pack ice at the top of the world, the task of securing funding for a new U.S. icebreaker has been arduous, lonely and at times maddeningly slow. Sometimes, it’s only by looking backward that progress can be measured, by seeing the obstacles that came before in a trail behind you. This week, Alaska’s congressional delegation got to see a big piece of ice crack and move aside, as Sen. Lisa Murkowski secured an amendment to a Homeland Security and defense spending bill that would direct $1 billion for the construction of a heavy icebreaker to augment America’s meager fleet of polar ships.

The US currently have two operational iceabreakers, Healy (front) and Polar Star (back). They both are slowly coming to age, especially 40 year old Polar Star and the US Coast Guard which operate the two ships, have proposed the construction of at least one new heavy icebreaker for several years now.
The US currently have two operational iceabreakers, Healy (front) and Polar Star (back). They both are slowly coming to age, especially 40 year old Polar Star and the US Coast Guard which operate the two ships, have proposed the construction of at least one new heavy icebreaker for several years now.

To call U.S. icebreakers a fleet at all is to do violence to the definition of “fleet.” There are two — the medium-duty Coast Guard vessel Healy and the heavy-duty Polar Star. A third, the Polar Sea, has been inactive since 2010 due to complete failure of its engines. Other Arctic nations such as Canada and Finland have about a half-dozen apiece. And Russia, which thus far has been most forward in asserting its territorial claims in Arctic waters, has 40. As sea ice recedes, the potential for shipping and tourism is growing, and America is so far behind in icebreaker capacity that it can’t even be said to be in the game.

Russia has the biggest fleet of icebreaking vessels in the world. It also has the largest coastline in the Arctic which needs to be kept ice free during the winter. Picture: Heiner Kubny
Russia has the biggest fleet of icebreaking vessels in the world. It also has the largest coastline in the Arctic which needs to be kept ice free during the winter. Picture: Heiner Kubny

To their credit, the members of Alaska’s delegation in Washington, D.C., have pushed hard to correct the U.S. icebreaker deficit for more than a decade. Unfortunately, their battle to gain recognition for the problem was a lonely one until very recently. Other members of Congress saw icebreakers as superfluous to U.S. defense, homeland security and commercial interests, a piece of Alaska pork. Defense agencies such as the Navy and Coast Guard recognized the issue, but didn’t want to allocate a portion of their own budget to fund new icebreaker construction. 

Senator Lisa Murkowski (Republican) was elected to the US senate in 2002 as a successor to her father and was twice re-elected in 2004 and 2010. Her political position is considered moderate and she takes a strong position for a bigger US involvement in Arctic affairs.
Senator Lisa Murkowski (Republican) was elected to the US senate in 2002 as a successor to her father and was twice re-elected in 2004 and 2010. Her political position is considered moderate and she takes a strong position for a bigger US involvement in Arctic affairs.

But slowly, the tide has been turning. In what was the most major recent policy shift on icebreakers, last fall President Barack Obama used the occasion of his visit to Alaska to highlight the need for more icebreakers, lending important bipartisan weight to the effort and demolishing the argument of those in Washington, D.C., who held that since Alaska’s senators were leading the charge, icebreakers must be a pet project that would only benefit the Last Frontier. Since then, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have stepped up efforts to get a new icebreaker built soon. Sen. Sullivan, together with Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, authored an amendment to a bill reauthorizing the U.S. Maritime Administration that would allocate $150 million to begin icebreaker construction in fiscal 2017. This week, Sen. Murkowski went further, securing an amendment in the Senate Appropriations Committee markup of the Homeland Security budget that would allocate $1 billion in Navy funds — the total cost for a new heavy-duty polar vessel — to the building of an icebreaker. Should that amendment survive a floor vote on the bill in the Senate and earn approval in the House, America will have a new icebreaker that it desperately needs. If this latest effort by Sen. Murkowski does indeed prove successful, it will be a coup for recognition of the growing importance of Arctic issues. It won’t solve the problem of the U.S. icebreaker deficit, but it would be a step in the right direction and a much-needed augmentation of the nation’s polar fleet.

With discussions still going on about the new US icebreaker, no real concepts about its looks are available. However, Canadian authorities have issued a conceptual drawing of their latest icebreaker John G. Diefenbaker.  The planned US icebreaker will be most likely similar to this. Picture: Marinelink
With discussions still going on about the new US icebreaker, no real concepts about its looks are available. However, Canadian authorities have issued a conceptual drawing of their latest icebreaker John G. Diefenbaker. The planned US icebreaker will be most likely similar to this. Picture: Marinelink

Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner