By K. Joseph Spears

The 21st century has been called a maritime century as well as an Arctic century. A rapidly changing Arctic has brought the world to the Arctic. The United States is a key Arctic player and an Arctic neighbour of Canada’s. America has long recognized the strategic importance of the region, a key hotspot during the Cold War. The Arctic has the potential to become another hotspot as both China and Russia exert their power. However, America has never thought of itself as an Arctic nation. Trying to read the signals on recent U.S. Arctic policy from the Trump White House is like trying to predict sea-ice conditions in a warming Arctic. Both the ice and presidential positions are constantly in flux. President Trump’s sole public comments about the Arctic have been in a bemusing interview stating “The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now. But now they’re setting records. They’re at a record level.” The best we can do is make an educated guess on American Arctic intentions. The overall goal from the Trump White House that remains constant is the 2016 Trump campaign slogan—“Make America Great Again”.

The Setting

The United States, like its northern neighbour, Canada, is an Arctic nation. The state of Alaska whose shoreline abuts against the Bering Sea is home to 735,000 residents. Alaska is why the United States is an Arctic nation. Alaska became the 49th state in 1959, after it was purchased from Russia in 1867. The waters of the Bering Strait between Russia and North America are the western chokepoint through which all Arctic shipping must transit between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic, regardless of which Arctic shipping route is used. Marine activity is increasing in American Arctic waters because of melting sea-ice, which is also affecting Alaskan coastal communities. Offshore drilling was banned during the Obama Administration. What America does in the region affects Canada and impacts the Arctic generally.

U.S. Coast Guard Icebreakers

The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) operates the United States icebreakers. The operational U.S. polar icebreaking fleet currently consists of one heavy polar icebreaker, Polar Star, and one medium polar icebreaker, Healy. In addition to Polar Star, the Coast Guard has a second heavy polar icebreaker, Polar Sea. Polar Sea, however, suffered an engine casualty in June 2010 and has been nonoperational since then. Polar Star and Polar Sea entered service in 1976 and 1978, respectively, and are now well beyond their originally intended 30-year service lives. USCG polar icebreakers perform a variety of missions supporting U.S. interests in polar regions. USCG participates and supports the U.S. National Science Foundation in its Antarctic research mission, resupplying Antarctic bases.

A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Mission Need Statement (MNS) approved in June 2013 states that “current requirements and future projections … indicate the Coast Guard will need to expand its icebreaking capacity, potentially requiring a fleet of up to six icebreakers (3 heavy and 3 medium) to adequately meet mission demands in the high latitudes….”

The current condition and age of the U.S. polar icebreaker fleet has raised concerns among some observers about whether the United States has the capability to operate in the Arctic to defend American interests. This concern has focussed Congress on when to acquire one or more new heavy polar icebreakers as replacements for Polar Star and Polar Sea. The Commandant of the USCG, Admiral Paul A Zukunft, has been very vocal in expressing the need for polar icebreakers publicly, as well as before Congress. It is not a secret that there is a capability gap and an aging icebreaker fleet. There have been many proposals concerning chartering and foreign construction.

The United States is moving forward. On October 19, 2017, the Navy, in collaboration with the Coast Guard under an integrated program office for the polar icebreaker project, released a draft request for proposals (RFP) for the detail design and construction of one heavy polar icebreaker with options for two additional such ships. Industry responses to the draft RFP were due by December 11, 2017.

A congressionally mandated July 2017 report on polar icebreakers from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends using a block buy contract to procure a single class of four science-ready heavy polar icebreakers so as to meet (along with continued operation of Healy) U.S. needs for both heavy and medium polar icebreakers. It is reported that the RFP for up to six (4 heavy and 2 medium) icebreakers is pending shortly.

The Department that ultimately funds the icebreaker acquisition program, either Homeland Security or Defence, will determine the final numbers to be procured. This RFP is moving ahead with one polar icebreaker by 2023.

Offshore Drilling

The Interior Department announced on January 18, 2018 plans to offer blocks in the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans for oil and gas exploration in an ambitious new five-year offshore lease plan. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the draft proposal for offshore leasing between 2019 and 2024 would offer about 90 per cent of the U.S. outer continental shelf, the largest lease sale ever, including the Arctic.

President Trump and congressional Republicans opened another controversial area, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to drilling as part of last year’s tax bill. While many argue that drilling in ANWR makes sense because Alaska has existing pipeline infrastructure in place there, this will surely lead to legal challenges as this unfolds.

The Trump Administration announced a draft proposal to offer offshore blocks to oil and gas drillers in almost all of the U.S. outer continental shelf. It remains to be seen whether there is any interest in arctic drilling based upon economic factors. Shell abandoned its Arctic offshore drilling program in September 2015. It has been commented that the activity under difficult operating conditions, and imposing regulatory requirements, rendered these efforts uneconomical. Shell invested over $7 billion drilling in Alaskan waters, and was prepared for the long term with specialized marine assets.

Moving Forward

The United States has always been a reluctant Arctic power. Unlike other Arctic nations, the United States has invested minimum amounts into its Arctic infrastructure and Arctic resources – it has no substantial ports along Arctic Alaska, little military presence, and very little diplomatic engagement with other Arctic nations. While U.S. interest in the Arctic grew during President Obama’s tenure, (he was the first President to visit the Arctic, and Chairmanship of the Arctic Council was provided by Secretary of State John Kerry), it appears that American interest to the Arctic has returned to its historic low level. The State Department has not retained an Arctic Special Envoy, or replaced the recently-retired Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and Environmental and Scientific Affairs, who had been responsible for Arctic relations. While the Department of Defence recently updated its Arctic plan, it has not invested in the resources needed to meet the challenge. One thought is to design USCG icebreakers to be equipped with weapons systems such as cruise missiles that can be added on a modular basis. The United States remains secretive of its underwater naval Arctic capability.

U.S. interests in the Arctic remain murky. However, with China’s increasing presence and diplomatic engagement and investments, this may see American interest growing. Spending billions of dollars on new icebreakers will focus increasing attention on the region. President Trump’s family can trace its roots to the Klondike Gold Rush. His grandfather ran a hotel and restaurant in Canada’s Yukon at the turn of the century. A changing Arctic may cause the President to shift his gaze to follow his grandfather’s into the Arctic.

Joe Spears has a longstanding interest in Arctic policy and economic development and has assisted Arctic ports with their development and interaction with the marine insurance requirements of the London marine insurance market. Joe can be reached at