Icebreakers

Shannon Eubanks, a crew member on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, participated in a 2018 ice rescue training exercise in the Arctic Ocean, north of Utqiagvik. The Coast Guard, in collaboration with Canada, is planning to sail the Cutter Healy through the Northwest Passage this summer. 

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is proposing to create a U.S. icebreaker fleet and increase military staffing in the Arctic, under a sweeping bipartisan bill to counter China’s economic and geo-political interests in the region.

The U.S. Coast Guard currently operates two aging icebreakers, including one near the end of its lifespan.

“The Arctic is a national asset and should be treated as such. I have long been dedicated to helping our nation invest in the infrastructure and assets critical to supporting a comprehensive Arctic strategy,” Murkowski said.

The senator’s provisions, which are in the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, would establish a position of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arctic Affairs or other high-level post. Murkowski is a long-time advocate of establishing an Arctic ambassador to guide U.S. foreign policy in the Arctic region, said Karina Borger, communications director for Murkowski.

“The senator also appreciates that [there] is an intentional focus [in the bill] on facilitating the development and coordination of foreign policy in the Arctic Region by involving Arctic indigenous people,” Borger said.

Strengthening Arctic alliances is key, according to Murkowski.

Murkowski applauded the draft bill for “acknowledging the importance of working together with Canada and other Arctic partners and allies to address Arctic issues and, as Arctic nations, to come together to address issues elsewhere,’’ Borger said. 

Murkowski’s provisions are part of a much larger 280-page bill addressing China aggression that will be heard April 21 in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The bill calls for sanctioning China for human rights abuses and for strengthening ties with Taiwan, which it describes as vital to Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States.

In the area of Arctic policy, the bill states that “the rapidly changing Arctic environment creates new national and regional security challenges due to increased military activity in the Arctic,” which heightens the risk of the Arctic emerging as a major theater of conflict.

The senator is calling for a full fleet of U.S. polar security cutters — icebreakers — as well as an increase in military staffing to support Arctic strategy and meet security needs. 

Murkowski emphasized the need for Congress to “invest in a significantly expanded icebreaker fleet.” 

While the U.S. maintains two older ice breakers — the 44-year-old Cutter Polar Star and 25-year-old Cutter Healy — Russia operates 50 icebreakers, including several that are nuclear-powered.

Canada has seven icebreakers. China operates two icebreakers and has commissioned the construction of a nuclear-powered icebreaker.

Increasing the number of U.S. icebreakers is a longstanding priority of the Alaska delegation in Congress. 

Sen. Dan Sullivan, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, secured a provision in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that authorized the construction of six Coast Guard icebreaking cutters.

“Working with his colleagues in Congress, especially Sen. Murkowski, the delegation has already funded construction of the first vessel, which will be the first U.S. heavy polar icebreaker built in over 40 years,” said Amanda Coyne, a senior adviser to Sullivan.

“Through her role on the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Murkowski has secured funding to help America develop its role as an Arctic nation by recapitalizing and expanding America’s fleet of polar security cutters,” Borger said.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Army, Navy and Air Force have released long-term Arctic strategies. Collectively, they call for a greater U.S. military presence in Alaska and the Arctic region, with an eye toward risks posed by China and Russia. 

“America is an Arctic nation because of Alaska, which means our state is on the frontlines of national security, commerce, and exploration,” Alaska Rep. Don Young said. 

Said Murkowski: “The U.S., as a true Arctic nation, must not only invest in our own interests but also ensure the interests of others, including China, are in accordance with the established roles and norms of the region.” 

Contact Linda F. Hersey at 459-7575 or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMpolitics.