President Trump, in a recent memo, asked executive departments to report back by early August on how they can develop a U.S. “fleet” of icebreaking ships to navigate the frozen Arctic and Antarctic — marking yet another step in the administration’s efforts to strengthen U.S. influence in the region as it faces challenges from Russia and China.
Specifically, the Trump memo ordered the State Department, Defense Department, Commerce Department and Office of Management and Budget to review how the U.S. could acquire “at least three heavy polar-class security cutters,” better known as icebreakers.
The U.S. currently lags behind Russia in the icebreakers department, and sees this deficit as a problem. Energy resources, security concerns and more are driving the push to catch up.
The memo, which also considered using smaller icebreakers to support national security priorities like “unmanned aviation” and “space systems,” even flicked at the possibility of a more militarized presence: “This assessment shall also evaluate defensive armament adequate to defend against threats by near-peer competitors and the potential for nuclear-powered propulsion.”
Below is a look at three major areas where the U.S. faces challenges in the Arctic, and what the Trump administration has done about them.
The terminology in the memo speaking of a “fleet” of icebreakers is perhaps a bit misleading — the U.S. currently only has one heavy icebreaker that is used for missions in both the Arctic and Antarctic. That icebreaker, the USCG Polar Star, is more than 40 years old. In addition, the Coast Guard maintains the medium icebreaker, the USCG Healy. Other icebreakers in the U.S. are privately owned.
Russia, meanwhile, has dozens of icebreakers, including several that are nuclear powered, multiple large icebreakers and what can legitimately be called a fleet of medium icebreakers. China has a handful of medium icebreakers and is angling for new ones as well.
“We really don’t have the ability to project the presence we need to project in both the Arctic and the Antarctic,” Vice Adm. Scott Buschman, the Coast Guard’s deputy commandant for operations, told Fox News of U.S. capabilities with just the Polar Star and the Healy. Buschman’s rank is the equivalent of a three-star general.
“We do need additional polar ice breakers to do what we need to do both in the Antarctic and the Arctic at the high latitudes. In the past they used the term… ‘six, three, one.’ We need six icebreakers, at least three of which are heavy icebreakers. And we need one now.”
Nick Solheim, the founder of the Wallace Institute for Arctic Security, told Fox News that although the U.S. has little Arctic territory compared with Russia, and therefore it makes sense why Russia would have more icebreakers, America’s capabilities are woefully insufficient.
“There was an instance a couple of years back where an Alaskan city contracted a Russian icebreaker to deliver fuel and supplies so the city could continue running through the winter,” he said. “Because we were not able to get there. That’s alarming when you have to, as a city in the United States, as an American citizen with the same rights as every other American citizen, have to… charge a foreign country with supplying your own city. That’s absolutely insane.”
The Anchorage Daily News reported in 2011 that a Russian icebreaker named the Renada was contracted to deliver fuel to Nome, Alaska, as the Polar Star was undergoing repairs in its homeport of Seattle and the Healy, which was near Nome at the time, was unable to break through the thick ice separating land from sea.
Buschman warned that the U.S. needs to keep pace with its rivals in order to maintain all its responsibilities and guard its interests in the Arctic.
“There is a lot more interest by countries in the Arctic. Certainly by Russia. Certainly by China. They’re also increasing their ability to build out their fleet and operate in the Arctic,” he said. “At the current pace, China’s got the potential to have more icebreaking capacity than the United States by 2025.”
It’s not just in numbers of ships that China is attempting to overtake the United States in, with regard to the Arctic. China, in the model of its Belt and Road Initiative, is attempting to set up a “Polar Silk Road.” With climate change making shipping lanes through the Arctic more plausible, China sees an opportunity to dominate what is likely to be a stepped-up level of Arctic commerce by establishing diplomatic and economic relationships with Arctic countries.
Solheim notes China’s increased activity on the Arctic Council, an international organization of Arctic countries, which China is not technically a member of, and its efforts to court individual members of the council as well. China last decade, for example, signed a free trade agreement with Iceland. It’s also tried to use its Confucious Institutes — Chinese government-programs that exist in American universities as well — to spread propaganda in Arctic countries.
China also tried to build airports in the Danish territory of Greenland before the U.S. put the brakes on that enterprise, and in May gained majority control of a Norwegian airline through several degrees of corporations owning other corporations.
“We’re all familiar with the way that China instituted debt trapping scams in Africa. They’ll come in and they’ll say, ‘Hey, we’ll build you this port at this really high interest rate, and if you don’t pay, it’s ours.’ And then that exact sequence happens. So now China owns your port,” Solheim said.
“It’s different in the way that it works in the Arctic because these are not poor countries with very high debt to GDP ratios,” he continued. “These are real developed countries. And so what China is attempting to do instead is be diplomatic, which is not really good at it, but it’s trying to do it anyway.”
And when diplomacy or subtle propaganda doesn’t work, China has resorted to threats.
On Swedish public radio in November, according to The Economist, Chinese Ambassador to Sweden Gui Congyou said, “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns.” Sweden, according to Radio Free Asia, had closed all the Confucius Institutes in its country by April, as its relationship with China continued to deteriorate.
And when the Faroe Islands were considering whether or not to use the Chinese-controlled tech company Huawei for their 5G infrastructure, the Chinese ambassador to Denmark, which controls the Faroe Islands, threatened to tank a trade deal between China and the Faroe Islands if Huawei was not given the job, according to the Danish newspaper Berlingske.
The U.S. has taken concrete steps to reinforce its relations with other Arctic nations as recently as last month, specifically with Denmark. The day after Trump issued his memorandum, it opened a consulate in Greenland, the icy Arctic territory of Denmark and the largest island in the world.
“I am proud to celebrate the reopening of the United States Consulate in Nuuk, Greenland, on June 10, 2020, reflecting America’s commitment to deepening our cooperation with the people of Greenland and the entire Kingdom of Denmark,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement last month. “Our presence in Nuuk will enhance the prosperity we share with our friends in Denmark and Greenland, as we work together with other Arctic allies and partners to ensure the stability and sustainability of development in the region.”
And Wednesday, the State Department appointed career diplomat Jim DeHart to fill the position of U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic Region, a slot that had been created under the Obama administration but was open for the past three years after its previous occupant stepped down following Trump’s election.
Buschman said that for the U.S. to successfully accomplish its goals in the Arctic there needs to be a “nuanced response to complex issues,” including cooperation between the Defense Department and State Department.
“Strong partnerships are really a key component of our Arctic strategy,” Buschman said. “We recognize that success in the Arctic requires a very collective effort across public sectors, across private sectors and includes international partnerships… Competition does not need to necessarily lead to conflict.”
Solheim also emphasized the need for engagement with Arctic allies.
“You get a lot of experts in the United States that want to say ‘If we fund this polar security cutter program, America will be safe and secure and that will be it. I vehemently disagree with that,” he said. “We need to be collaborating with our allies and our partners and even international organizations like the Arctic Council to ensure that we are working together and collaborating on keeping the Arctic a free and safe place for everyone who lives there.”
Also addressed in the president’s memo was a request for “at least two optimal the United States basing locations and at least two international basing locations.”
A new “basing location” in Alaska, for example, could help the Coast Guard more efficiently carry out its duties without having to steam its ships up and down the west coast from their homeport in Seattle
“The main problem is, and the president brings this up in this memorandum, that we don’t port our polar security cutters in Alaska or the Arctic. We port them very far away from where they’re actually needed,” Solheim said. “And the fact we don’t have bases that we can port polar security cutters at for long periods of time there or do repairs on is insane.”
Solheim also mentions that the international basing locations could include “a cooperative base with an allied country” and that there’s been an effort to build, for commerce, a deepwater port in Nome, Alaska, which could prove helpful to the Coast Guard.
Buschman mentioned that the Coast Guard also has plenty of real estate in Alaska, and said there is no “specific requirement for a deepwater port” — just the ships — but he said that if a deepwater port was built in Alaska, the Coast Guard could take advantage of it.
The vice admiral emphasized that Americans should care about what happens in the Arctic, even though it might seem like a far off region.
“From a resource standpoint, 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil resources are projected to be in the Arctic, 30 percent of undiscovered natural gas, about a trillion dollars in minerals,” he said, also emphasizing that the Bearing Sea fishery is about 50 percent of the United States’ fishing resources, by volume.
He added: “Certainly China and Russia are much more interested in the Arctic… the United States is a leader in the Arctic region. The Coast Guard is a leader, as part of the overall U.S. effort. And I think that if the United States doesn’t continue to show leadership someone else will.”
Fox News’ Frank Miles contributed to this report.