Coast Guard seeks billion-dollar icebreaker as Russia makes Arctic push

Story highlights

  • Coast Guard commandant warns Russia is militarizing the Arctic and accused Moscow of "saber-rattling"
  • Two senators also link the need for a new icebreaker ship to Russian commercial activity in the region

Washington (CNN)Faced with a growing Russian military presence in the Arctic, U.S. leaders are calling for a new billion-dollar icebreaker ship.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, and Angus King, a Maine independent, and Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft were among those calling for the advanced vessel at a recent event at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
    Zukunft warned that Russia was militarizing the Arctic and accused Moscow of "saber-rattling" by conducting unannounced military drills in the Arctic area involving thousands of troops.
    Adm. Mark Ferguson, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, expressed similar concerns about aggressive Russian activity in the Arctic, noting that Russian submarine activity was at its highest point in 20 years.
    He went on to compare Russian maneuvers in the Arctic with Chinese moves in the East and South China Seas, saying "Russia is watching what China does in the East China Sea with the 'nine-dash line' and is working to define what the continental shelf looks like, to establish a claim and declare its sovereignty."
    The nine-dash-line refers to China's claimed territorial waters, which extend hundreds of miles to the south and east of its island province of Hainan.
    These claims are fiercely contested by many of China's neighbors, including the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China is in the process of building artificial islands, some of which are equipped with airfields, to bolster its claim of sovereignty in the area.
    In 2007, a Russian submarine planted a flag on the Arctic seabed close to the North Pole, a move that was seen by some as an effort to stake a sovereignty claim.
    The two senators also linked the need for a new icebreaker ship to Russian military and commercial activity in the region, noting the disparity between the Russian and American icebreaking fleet.
    "As we are struggling to add one ... the Russians are building 14," Murkowski said.
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    King added that "competition with Russia is now back on the strategic calculus," saying the Russians "are flat broke, their economy isn't as strong as ours, but they decided it's a strategic priority."
    President Barack Obama had previously announced a proposal to accelerate the acquisition of a replacement heavy-duty icebreaker by 2020 after a visit to Alaska in September 2015. The icebreaker is meant "to ensure the United States can operate year-round in the Arctic Ocean," the White House said.
    At the time, the White House noted that after World War II, the United States counted seven icebreakers in its fleet. However, that number has dwindled to two, including only one heavy-duty icebreaker, the aging 399-foot USCGC Polar Star, commissioned in 1976. Russia operates 40 icebreakers, the White House said.
    Murkowski called on the President to do more.
    "An announcement is good, but what you really need is the money behind it," she said.
    The majority of the speakers at the event on national security challenges in the Arctic estimated the cost of the icebreaker ship at approximately $1 billion.
    While Zukunft acknowledged that defensive capabilities would be considered in designing the new icebreaker, he downplayed the chances of an accidental military incident with Russia and stressed the advantages of robust communication between the U.S. and Russian coast guards.
    "You pick up the phone and talk to your counterpart," he said. "Operating in harsh environments, we find we have a lot more in common than we do differences."