In 1867, the U.S. secretary of State, William Seward, struck a deal to buy Alaska from Russia for 2 cents per acre. Critics panned the deal as wasteful and labeled it “Seward’s Folly.” But Seward’s strategic foresight has brought America a bounty of natural resources, a beautiful new frontier, and a pivotal edge in World War II and in the Cold War.
To this day, the waters off the Alaskan coast supply our nation with critical petroleum, fish stocks and deep-sea minerals. Yet, the United States is losing strategic ground in the Arctic to our adversaries Russia and China. A decisive tool in that rivalry is the icebreaker, a vessel uniquely equipped to cut through deep layers of Arctic ice.
Russia has the world’s largest icebreaker fleet, numbering over 40 total with three more under construction and a dozen planned in the next decade. China, too, is building ice breakers and investing in Arctic infrastructure. By contrast, the U.S. Coast Guard has just two polar icebreakers: the Polar Star and the Healy.
Until recently, those two ships divided their efforts at opposite poles — the Polar Star resupplying the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, and the Healy protecting U.S. interests in the Arctic. A recent shipboard fire aboard the Healy has put half of America’s polar icebreaker fleet out of commission. As a result, the Polar Star is now America’s only operational polar icebreaker.
Great power competition in the Arctic
1 of 14A U.S. Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook takes flight for exercise Arctic Eagle 2020 on Feb. 24, 2020, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. The drill is meant to benefit homeland security and emergency response operations in the northern U.S. state. (Alaska National Guard)
2 of 14Canadian Coast Guard ship Louis S. St. Laurent alongside U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy in the Arctic Ocean helped map the Arctic seafloor and gather data to help define the outer limits of the continental shelf in the region. (Jessica Robertson/U.S. Geological Survey)
3 of 14A Russian officer, right, and soldiers stand next to a special military truck at the Russian northern military base on Kotelny island, beyond the Arctic Circle on April 3, 2019. The Russian military base dubbed the “Northern Clover” on the island was built to serve as a model for future military installations in the Arctic. (Maxime Popov/AFP via Getty Images)
4 of 14Detachment 1, 23rd Space Operations Squadron gained operational acceptance of the seventh and final Remote Block Change antenna at Thule Air Base, Greenland, on July, 26, 2016. The antenna, designated as POGO-Charlie, represented some of the latest telemetry, tracking and command technologies in the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)
5 of 14U.S. Marines shoot an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System during U.S. Northern Command’s Exercise Arctic Edge in Fort Greely, Alaska, on March 3, 2020. (Staff Sgt. Diana Cossaboom/U.S. Air Force)
6 of 14Chinese paramilitary police border guards train in the snow at Mohe County in China’s northeast Heilongjiang province, on the border with Russia, on Dec. 12, 2016. Mohe is the northernmost point in China, with a subarctic climate. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
7 of 14North American Aerospace Defense Command conducts an E-3 Sentry mission to the high Arctic supported by KC-135 Stratotankers. The mission was to demonstrate America and Canada’s ability to detect threats through Arctic avenues of approach to North America. (North American Aerospace Defense Command)
8 of 14Russian TOR-M2 tactical surface-to-air missile systems and Pantsir-SA air defense systems are decked out in their Arctic colors as they ride through Red Square during a military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2017. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)
9 of 14A soldier holds a machine gun as he patrols the Russian northern military base on Kotelny island, beyond the Arctic circle on April 3, 2019. The Arctic is a strategic region for Russia as it continues to strengthen its presence with the new perspectives offered by global warming. (Maxime Popov/AFP via Getty Images)
10 of 14British and Irish soldiers with their military vehicles pause to check equipment and rest on Oct. 10, 2018, in Rotterdam, Netherlands. They were on their way to join other NATO forces for Operation Trident Juncture. Norway has long lobbied NATO partners to increase troop numbers as Russia has built up its military capacity in the region, especially the Kola Peninsula inside the Arctic Circle. (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
11 of 14Canada’s HMCS Kingston sails in Lancaster Sound, close to Gascoyne Inlet during Operation Nanook on August 29, 2019. During Operation Nanook, the Canadian Armed Forces practice guarding the country’s sovereignty over its northernmost regions and improving the way it operates in Arctic conditions. (Cpl. Simon Arcand/Canadian Armed Forces)
12 of 14A Finnish F-18 Hornet departs from Jokkmokk Air Base during a joint exercise between the air forces of Finland and Sweden over the Arctic Circle towns of Jokkmokk in Sweden and Rovaniemi in Finland on March 25, 2019. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)
13 of 14Project scientist Nathan Kurtz and senior support scientist Jeremy Harbeck walk on their way to survey an iceberg locked in sea ice near Thule Air Base on March 26, 2017, in Pituffik, Greenland. NASA’s Operation IceBridge was flying research missions out of the base and other Arctic locations. IceBridge team members took the rare opportunity to survey sea ice near the base from the ground. Thule Air Base is the U.S. military’s northernmost base located some 750 miles above the Arctic Circle. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
14 of 14The crew of the U.S. Navy’s Seawolf-class submarine Connecticut enjoys ice liberty after surfacing in the Arctic Circle during Ice Exercise 2020 on March 7, 2020. ICEX is a biennial submarine exercise that promotes interoperability between allies and partners to maintain operational readiness and regional stability, while improving capabilities to operate in the Arctic environment. (MC1 Michael B. Zingaro/U.S. Navy)
This unfortunate turn of events has created new space for Russia and China to exert maritime influence. Both powers are continuing to invest heavily in Arctic-capable assets and erode American influence.
This summer, the Russian Navy conducted its largest war games exercise since the Cold War near Alaska. Russia has also reopened over 50 previously closed Soviet military facilities and positioned early warning radar and missile systems near Alaska.
China is upping its polar capabilities by pouring money into the construction of a fifth Antarctic research station, completing its second polar icebreaker and conducting six expeditions to the Arctic. In recent years China has declared itself a “near-Arctic state,” achieved permanent observer status on the multinational Arctic Council and announced its “Polar Silk Road” economic ambitions.
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The Arctic is a geopolitical convergence point. Without new investment in polar capabilities, our adversaries’ influence will grow. The risk is less protection of U.S. commercial and scientific vessels, weaker enforcement of international law, and an increasing threat to our national security.
At the center of U.S. efforts to reverse this trend is the Polar Security Cutter program. This program will produce a fleet of six new icebreakers — including the first heavy icebreakers built in U.S. shipyards in over 40 years. Congress has already funded the first vessel, which should undergo sea trials by 2024. The Coast Guard has requested funding for the second vessel.
These ships cannot come fast enough. Even so, the Coast Guard will have to stretch the service of the Polar Star until at least 2023, more than two decades beyond the ship’s expected useful life.
President Donald Trump raised the alarm in June when he instructed six members of his Cabinet to make recommendations to achieve “a ready, capable, and available fleet of polar security icebreakers.” The president understands that two aged and broken icebreakers are a far cry from the needs of the world’s largest trading economy and military superpower.
Secretary Seward made that historic deal for Alaska 153 years ago. The only folly would be to cede to our adversaries, through underinvestment and neglect, the Arctic advantage the United States has long enjoyed.
Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, serve on the Armed Services Committee.
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