- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2020

A fire that broke out on board the Coast Guard cutter Healy last week managed to put half of America’s icebreaker fleet out of commission — down from two to one.

Coast Guard officials revealed the incident this week, shining a bright spotlight on what military analysts warn are deep vulnerabilities in U.S. Arctic policy and potentially forcing the Trump administration to cede crucial strategic territory for now to quickly advancing rivals such as Russia.

Government officials late Tuesday revealed that the Healy, one of just two functional U.S. icebreaker ships, sustained an electrical fire Aug. 18 and was forced to dock in Seattle for inspection and repairs.

The fire was minor and was extinguished within 30 minutes, but it led Coast Guard officials to scrap a key Arctic excursion that would have been part of a much broader American effort to increase its small footprint in the icy region and push back against Russian expansion.

Instead, the U.S. has been left with just one working icebreaker and must choose whether to conduct missions in the Arctic or Antarctic at a time when warming temperatures are opening strategic and economic opportunities at the top of the world.

Specialists say the dire situation is the result of years of poor planning and underinvestment and an approach by U.S. administrations that failed to foresee how important the Arctic would become for a great power competition in the 21st century among the U.S., Russia and China and other countries.

“Because the U.S. only has two icebreakers … in its inventory that must service both polar regions, taking one out of service even temporarily forces the U.S. to choose which polar region it will serve,” said Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Heaven help us if both icebreakers have mechanical failures at the same time,” she said.

Coast Guard officials said the fire broke out in one of the Healy’s main propulsion motors. No crew members were injured, but officials said the ship’s starboard propulsion motor and shaft are no longer operational. The Healy was about 60 miles off the coast of Seward, Alaska, at the time of the fire and was preparing to conduct national security and scientific missions in the Arctic, officials said.

Coast Guard leaders made no attempt to minimize the big-picture impact.

“I commend the crew of the Healy for their quick actions to safely combat the fire,” said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area commander. “This casualty, however, means that the United States is limited in icebreaking capability until the Healy can be repaired, and it highlights the nation’s critical need for polar security cutters.”

With the medium-strength Healy out of service, the U.S. is left with only the Polar Star, a heavy icebreaker first put to sea in the 1970s. The Coast Guard fleet has another icebreaker, the Polar Sea, but that ship hasn’t been fully functional in nearly a decade.

By contrast, Russia under President Vladimir Putin has more than 40 operational icebreakers, many nuclear-powered, with at least 11 more reportedly on the way.

Calculated gamble

In the face of Russia’s aggressive Arctic push, analysts argue that it was inevitable that the U.S. would find itself in such a predicament. The U.S., they say, has been taking a calculated gamble for years and is now paying the price.

“Not good … but we have known that we have been living on borrowed time for a while. Machinery fails on any ship. Having one icebreaker for each pole is always risky,” Matthew Collette, an associate professor of naval architecture and marine engineering at the University of Michigan, said in a Twitter post.

Top military and political leaders have acknowledged American vulnerabilities for years. As part of its revamped Arctic strategy, the Trump administration has laid out a road map to dramatically increase the U.S. icebreaker fleet over the next decade.

Plans call for at least three icebreakers to be delivered over the next five years. Another set of icebreakers, possibly nuclear-powered, will be constructed after 2026.

A White House directive, laid out by President Trump in June, also requires federal agencies to look into leasing icebreakers from “partner nations” as an interim step.

But analysts say the wheels of government are moving too slowly.

“This procurement plan should have been embarked upon well over a decade ago to avoid the situation the U.S. currently finds itself in,” Ms. Conley said. “The U.S. does not need 41 icebreakers [to match Russia]. But it does need greater capability than it currently has — but it needs that capability now, not in five years.”

Meanwhile, Russia is adding to its already impressive icebreaker fleet. This summer, builders began construction on the “Leader,” a massive nuclear-powered icebreaker that Russian officials say will be capable of operating in the Northern Sea route year-round and can sail for up to eight months at a time.

The ship, estimated to cost more than $1 billion, will be the most powerful icebreaker in the world, according to Russian media.

Such capabilities are central to Moscow’s plan to project power across the Arctic, establish shipping lanes, extract energy resources and conduct other missions. Mr. Putin last year boasted of a “well calculated” effort to expand control of the Northern Sea route and take other steps to increase Russia’s hold in the region.

Equally worrisome for Pentagon planners, China also has made huge investments in icebreakers as it seeks to become a major player in the Arctic and include the region within its “Polar Silk Road” economic initiative.

The U.S. has pushed back against both nations’ ambitions in the region. In May, the U.S. and Britain sailed warships through the Barents Sea off Russia’s Arctic coast for the first time since the Cold War.

Such missions are crucial to send a strong message to Moscow and Beijing. But truly competing in the Arctic is impossible without a new fleet of icebreakers, lawmakers and analysts argue.

“Securing America’s interests in the Arctic requires a fleet of ships capable of patrolling and exploring the region,” Sen. Roger F. Wicker, Mississippi Republican, said Wednesday. “This fire aboard the Healy highlights the need for continued U.S. investment to meet the [Coast Guard’s] growing needs in the polar regions.”

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