China’s growing ambitions in the Arctic represent a major national security threat to the United States, top U.S. military leaders said recently, underscoring why American lawmakers and the Pentagon are now scrambling to revamp the nation’s Arctic strategy and quickly commission new vessels capable of operating in the icy region.
The massive $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law by President Trump last week, directs the federal government to launch new comprehensive studies of all “Chinese military activities in the Arctic, as well as Chinese foreign direct investment in the Arctic.”
The provision comes amid growing concern inside the Trump administration that China — technically not an Arctic nation — has its eye on the strategically vital area as Beijing seeks to expand its power and influence across the globe.
“The Polar Regions are no longer emerging — they constitute contemporary national security issues,” tweeted Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl L. Schultz earlier this month.
Adm. Schultz also took a not-so-subtle shot at China as he blasted “increasing encroachment by non-Arctic states” in the region, a clear reference to Beijing’s growing efforts to increase its own footprint in the Arctic.
To counter China, the NDAA also includes a measure that calls on the Defense Department to continue its work to identify “strategic ports” in the Arctic region. Once built, the sites would be capable of hosting Coast Guard and Navy equipment and ships, along with an airport to move military and civilian personnel in and out of the area.
At the same time, the U.S. military is planning to field a new icebreaker within the next five years in what analysts believe is a recognition that Washington needs to get much more serious about its Arctic strategy.
More broadly, top administration officials have fundamentally rejected any Chinese claims in the region, and the issue has become yet another flash point between the two global powers.
“There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this year in a major speech outlining the administration’s revamped Arctic strategy.
“No third category exists — and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing,” he added.
But such warnings from Washington seem to be having little effect on Beijing. China this year announced plans to build a nuclear-powered icebreaker capable of traversing Arctic waters. Such a vessel could potentially be a game changer in the region and would represent China’s third icebreaker.
The U.S. currently has just two.
“They’re going to really potentially outpace us on icebreaking capable ships by 2025 if we don’t keep our foot on the gas,” Adm. Schultz said during an October speech.
Russia, meanwhile, reportedly has 40 icebreakers in operation, and U.S. officials warn that the Moscow is doubling down on its investments into such vessels. Russia’s broader approach to the Arctic has grown increasingly brazen in recent years, officials said.
“Moscow already illegally demands that other nations request permission to pass, requires Russian maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships, and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply,” Mr. Pompeo said in his speech, which was delivered at a May meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council in May. “These provocative actions are part of a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior in the Arctic. Russia is already leaving snow prints in the form of army boots.”
The U.S. right now has limited options to exert its own influence in the region. At this point, the U.S. fleet consists of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star — a 399-foot heavy icebreaker commissioned in 1976 — and the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot medium icebreaker commissioned in 2000.
The Coast Guard needs six new Polar Security Cutters (PSCs) to ensure year-round access to the polar regions and to provide self-rescue capability, officials said.
To address the need, the Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy in April 2019 awarded Mississippi-based VT Halter Marine, Inc. a contract for the design and construction of the first polar security cutter. Construction is set to begin in 2021 with delivery planned for 2024, Coast Guard officials said.
The company was awarded $745 million for the design and construction contract for their new class of icebreakers. The development will be overseen by the Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command, and the cutters themselves will be based in Seattle.
“This contract award reflects the great benefit achieved by integrating the incredible talents of U.S. Coast Guard and Navy acquisition and shipbuilding professionals to deliver best value at speed,” James Geurts, Assistant Navy Secretary for Research and Development, said in a statement earlier this year.
The contract also includes options for the construction of two more PSCs. The total contract value could reach almost $2 billion, officials said.
Mr. Geurts said his team worked with industry partners and has identified $300 million in cost avoidances.
“This reflects the urgency in which we are operating to ensure we deliver capabilities necessary to support the U.S. Coast Guard and the nation’s missions in the polar regions,” he said.
Each year, the Coast Guard sends icebreakers to lead supply ships into McMurdo Sound in Antarctica to supply the National Science Foundation’s research center.
“In terms of the maximum thickness of the ice to be broken, the annual McMurdo resupply mission generally proses the greatest ice breaking challenge for U.S. polar icebreakers,” according to a Congressional Research Service report obtained by USNI News.
Ships from Europe going through the polar route to reach ports in Asia could cut a week or two off their transit by not having to go through the Panama Canal. The route could become another disputed shipping lane that would still require a significant icebreaking fleet.