By K. Joseph Spears

When U.S. President Obama went north to Alaska this past September, he spoke about the challenges in the Arctic and America’s important leadership role as Chair of the Arctic Council, and made clear the urgent need for the United States to design and develop icebreaker capability in the Arctic. The loss of sea-ice resulting from climate change is an oceanographic dynamic which is opening up Arctic waters to various international players. This requires Arctic coastal states to have a marine capability which heavy icebreakers provide. The Obama Administration has wanted to push ahead for a procurement of a heavy icebreaker by 2020.

America’s icebreaker gap

The lack of appropriate icebreaker capability (the “icebreaker gap”) has received a great deal of commentary following the President’s Alaskan visit. The Arctic icebreaker issue has been well known in Arctic community for many years. In the case of the United States, the U.S. Coast Guard operates icebreakers both in the Arctic and Antarctic. The United States has three Arctic icebreakers, namely medium-duty USCG Healey, a research icebreaker, and two heavy-duty icebreakers, USCG Polar Sea and USCG Polar Star. Only USCG Polar Star is operational and operated last year to the South Pole where it rescued an Australian fishing vessel and recently transited to the North Pole. USCG Polar Seas has been docked in Seattle since 2010 after it suffered a major engine failure and requires repairs estimated to cost some $100 million. These vessels were commissioned in 1976 and 1978 respectively. Like Canada’s icebreakers, they are conventionally powered, unlike the ten nuclear heavy icebreakers operated by Russia.

America’s icebreakers as national asset

In a recent report to Congress entitled The Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress it was noted that that the United States will require six heavy-duty icebreakers in the coming years, which are estimated to cost of between US$900 million and $ 1.1 billion each. The report highlights the fact that refurbished USCG Polar Star is due to be retired in 2020 and that new heavy icebreakers, even under accelerated procurement, would not come into service until 2025, leaving a two to three year icebreaker gap.

At this time there is very little funding for the design and development of icebreakers, which will create serious problems for the United States protecting its interests in the Arctic region. The amount allocated to this project for fiscal year 2016 is $166 million, which is an 81 per cent decrease in funding compared to an earlier allocation. It remains to be seen how serious United States is about creating the required icebreaker capability. In a recent analysis of the U.S. Navy’s Arctic Roadmap by the Centre for International Maritime Security, Andreas Kuersten wrote: “ As the Navy puts it in the report’s final sentence: “The key will be to balance potential investments with other Service priorities.” The Roadmap, however, currently shows that balance tipping away from any substantial Arctic engagement.

Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Zukunft mentioned that compared to Russia and other Arctic nations, “America was not even in the game.“ Those are strong words. The U.S., though, like Canada, is an Arctic nation and requires modern icebreakers for Arctic operations and governance.

Icebreakers are not a luxury, but the foundation of operations in the region. The Report to Congress identified the problem as follows: “Consequently, unless the service life of Polar Star is further extended (or unless Polar Seas is repaired and returned to service), there will be a period of perhaps two to six years during which the United States will have no operational heavy-duty polar icebreakers. The issue for Congress is whether to approve, reject, or modify the Administration’s plans for sustaining and modernizing the polar icebreaking fleet.” The U.S. Navy has no ice strengthened vessels that can operate in the region.

Icebreakers are expensive to build, maintain and operate. With only one icebreaker available, the ability to do a self-rescue will be limited, which is a real concern in the region. The recent transit of the Chinese Navy PLA-N (five ship Task Force through U.S. territorial seas off the Aleutian Islands) shows that China is taking a determined approach to Arctic passage. It is interesting that this transit (which took place within 12 nautical miles of U.S. territory) occurred during the President’s visit to Alaska. It is safe to assume that China is making a statement that it intends to operate in the region. China operates Xue Long, the largest non-nuclear icebreaker and has another under construction.

Icebreakers have a lifespan of about half a century. That is old for any vessel, especially ones that are used hard, and are of critical importance to Arctic governance and operations. With the Arctic increasingly seen as a potential new international shipping route, the need for robust icebreaking capacity is evident.

Canada’s icebreaker gap

Canada’s icebreaker gap is more pressing and affects the Canadian economy in a major way. Although they are also performing duties in the Arctic, Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers were designed for icebreaking in southern waters, on the Great Lakes and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to keep Great Lakes and Seaway commerce to the Port of Montréal open as long as possible. Our largest and oldest, CCG Louis St. Laurent, at 49 years of age, has been worked hard.

Canada’s icebreaker problems are age and capability related. While construction of CCG John G. Diefenbaker, a new polar class icebreaker, was announced with great fanfare by then Prime Minister Harper, it is unlikely under the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) that this vessel will be operational before 2022 at the very earliest. Even that date is optimistic. The U.S. estimates it will take 10 years for U.S. shipyards to build an Arctic icebreaker.

The Shipping Federation Canada recently released a policy statement which called on the government to ensure that there is sufficient icebreaking capability within the Great Lakes System to allow for commerce to take place. This is a shipping infrastructure problem that affects Canada’s economy, but also impacts Arctic operations and capability. The Federation stated that “The past two years have demonstrated the limits of CCG’s icebreaking fleet as it dealt with icebreaking in the Arctic, the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River and Eastern Canada. Already operating with a limited and aging number of assets over a very large geographical area, the conditions demonstrated the breaking point for the system and the need for more icebreakers as soon as possible to meet adequate levels of service and safety.”

The Shipping Federation proposes to consider alternative service delivery either through chartering and/or purchasing vessels from other nations, and to modify NSPS to build smaller, but more numerous vessels that can be used in icebreaking capabilities and final waters. The United Kingdom recently announced construction of a new £200 million polar research ship which will come into service in 2019.

Indirectly, this proposed policy has a link to Arctic issues because during the summer months, Canada’s icebreakers are used in the Arctic. Unlike the icebreakers operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, they are not restricted to Arctic operations – they are an integral part of Canada’s shipping infrastructure. These staunch vessels see double duty on a year-round basis which puts greater strain on these vessels, especially as they age.

With heavy ice pack ice last spring in the Cabot Strait, Canada’s largest icebreaker, CCG Louis St. Laurent was unable to free Marine Atlantic ferry MV Blue Putties from the rafted drift ice. Although we do not think of the waters around Cape Breton and Newfoundland as Arctic waters, these ice covered waters can be every bit as challenging, particularly for icebreakers that are beyond retirement age.

CCG Louis St Laurent. and also CCG Terry Fox recently transited to the North Pole both in 2014 and 2015 to perform work in support of Canada’s claim to the North Pole seabed as part of her continental shelf. CCG Terry Fox was privately built by a Gulf Canada subsidiary as an ice-strengthen offshore supply vessel for use in the Beaufort Sea and was world leading technology when it was designed and built in Canada. During the days of Beaufort Sea exploration (1970-80’s), Canada led the way in the development and design of icebreaker technology. Much of that technical expertise went to Finland which has subsequently become a world leader in icebreaker design and development. This vessel was bought by the Canadian government after the collapse of the Beaufort Sea oil exploration in the early 1980s.

Canada’s focus on its new Polar icebreaker under the NSPS program (CCG John G. Diefenbaker) has been to build one single large conventionally-powered icebreaker that would not operate during the winter months in the Canadian Arctic.

Icebreakers provide policy options

It is important to remember that icebreakers give Canada policy options in the Arctic. The Arctic is a world’s last frontier and is becoming a potential geo-political flashpoint as issues arise concerning access for international commercial shipping and exploitation and harvesting of natural resources. Canada has recently sought to increase its claim to continental shelf resources beyond 200 nautical miles under article 76 of the Law of the Sea Convention. This past summer on orders from then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, scientists conducted further research in support of preparing the claim for the seabed out to the North Pole. Accordingly, CCG Terry Fox and CCG Louis St. Laurent were deployed to conduct further geophysical research and data collection. What this example shows is Canada’s capability to make policy choices is limited by its actual existing maritime capability. This embraces both vessels, maritime air assets, space sensors (our space policy is also part of our Ocean policy) and unmanned systems and the training of skilled and specialized personnel. There is a long lead time for building and maintaining this ocean infrastructure which Canada requires both domestically and internationally.

Moving Forward

Now is the time for a reboot of Canadian and American icebreaker capability. We need to rethink this in light of rapid changes in the Arctic. We share common waters with the U.S., and our interests are very much aligned in the Arctic with our best friend and ally, the United States. There is an opportunity for Canada and the United States to work together to build a class of polar icebreaker’s based on the design of CCG John G. Diefenbaker. This would alleviate the icebreaker gap and give both Canada and the United States much-needed capability in the Arctic.

We can work with the United States with which country we have historically had a long-standing interest in the region. This is an opportunity for a two countries to work together towards a common good and protect the Arctic environment, which has various spinoffs on a number of fronts. This will take leadership on the part of Canada. Is Canada’s new government is up to the challenge? Closing the icebreaker gap is an investment in Canada’s future.

K. Joseph Spears, principal of Horseshoe Bay Marine Group, has a long-standing interest in Canada’s Arctic and marine capabilities. He has participated in many policy dialogues in the development of marine practices for the government of Canada. He assisted in the strategic environmental assessment of Canada’s polar icebreaker under contract to the Canadian Coast Guard via Norstrat Consulting. He can be reached at