Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine is the latest punctuation in Putin’s pattern of bellicosity. US strategists and policymakers cannot afford to overlook what Russia’s hubris may mean for North America’s future national security. This is not to say that Russia will soon add Alaska to its list of invasion targets. It is to say, however, that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlights the fundamental truth that defending one’s homeland remains the chief priority of every sovereign nation on earth. The problem: the United States cannot reliably deter aggression or defend the homeland via its most vulnerable avenue of approach. To deter and defend, Washington needs to demonstrate commitment to and be visibly present in the Arctic. And being more present requires a different approach.
Arctic Apathy Begets Arctic Action
After the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s collapse, the over-the-Arctic threat eroded. With the creation of the Arctic Council in 1996 and the United States as the world’s only superpower of the time, the region’s importance waned as Washington became entrenched in conflicts elsewhere at the outset of the twenty-first century. After twenty years of sustained conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, American influence and hegemony is no longer what it was, raising the stakes of Washington’s polar policy stagnation. A combination of strategic apathy and indecision has created a reactive security dynamic for the United States in the Arctic, where proactivity is deeply needed.
Post–Cold War American Arctic apathy created a regional dynamic where the United States lacks comparable Arctic capabilities to Russia and China, principally in the form of dedicated polar vessels capable of operating in Arctic ice. The so-called icebreaker gap is a microcosm of the bigger problem: the United States has a known shortfall in polar capabilities with insufficient plans to address it and meet the demands of future strategic competition. Unable to sustain Arctic surface power projection and demonstrate a visible regional commitment to strategic competitors, the US position will erode where Russia and China seek to exploit Washington’s absence. The solution to sustained US Arctic hard and soft power projection, presence, and influence—at least in the near term—is not in icebreaker construction. Defense acquisition moves at glacial speeds. It will be years before the United States meets the icebreaker target mandated in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. Rather, the solution rests with better federal resource utilization of available assets to achieve a more consistent Arctic presence.
Polar Vessels, Then and Now
The US Coast Guard’s Polar Star and Polar Sea were commissioned as the first two heavy-lift icebreakers in 1977. In 1999, the Healy was commissioned as the third icebreaker (medium) in the US portfolio. When built, a ship’s initial design life is thirty years. By this measure, 2007 marked the conclusion of the initial life of both the Polar Sea and the Polar Star. Routine preventive maintenance and service-life extensions can extend the design life beyond this limit, and between 2008 and 2012 the Polar Star underwent a $57 million overhaul. During that time, however, in 2010, the Polar Sea experienced catastrophic engine failure. This left the United States with only one operational icebreaker in its fleet inventory for nearly two years—hardly enough to safeguard the Arctic or achieve any meaningful presence and power projection.
Last year marked the beginning of a series of service-life extension programs for the Polar Star, expected to cost $75 million to extend the vessel’s operational life and capability through 2027 to align with the anticipated arrival of the new Polar Security Cutters. When the Polar Star retires in 2027, the ship will be fifty years old after having operated in some of the harshest environments. Future US icebreaking capability looks slim.
Here the United States sits. It has two available polar-capable vessels (excluding the National Science Foundation’s two vessels, the Nathaniel B. Palmer and the Laurence M. Gould) in the current fleet inventory. The Healy is twenty-three years old; the Polar Star is forty-four. The United States has plans for upwards of six new icebreakers in the coming decade, but this delivery target is unlikely given past construction timelines of far less capable vessels. In 2019, the Coast Guard awarded the contract to build the Polar Security Cutters. Assuming no delays, the first cutter is expected in 2024 and the second in 2025. But these are only delivery dates. Once the Coast Guard accepts the ship, another twelve to eighteen months are required before the ship is operational and mission ready. At best, the soonest the United States can expect the first of the new vessels is 2025. Knowing that the Polar Star and Polar Sea reached the end of their initial thirty-year lifecycle in 2007, and that the Polar Sea experienced a subsequent engine failure in 2010, the United States has had no sense of urgency to invest in new Arctic capabilities. Ship design to commissioning is a decade-long process, yet Washington still waited until 2019 to start addressing the gap.
The Coast Guard icebreaker woes encapsulate the bigger issue: despite years of mandates and renewed focus on a geostrategic vulnerability, the Navy and Coast Guard cannot execute sufficient US power projection.
Do Something Different for Homeland Defense
Despite the Arctic vulnerability, the United States’ lead command for defending the homeland, US Northern Command, “has few permanently assigned forces” to execute its mission to “defend our homeland” and “deter, detect, deny, and defeat threats to the United States.” Instead, the command gains forces from the military services when needed or requested—which often, if not always, means in response to something. But response is not deterrence. Responding does not deny. The United States is militarily vulnerable, and the command responsible for the top national security priority is an insufficient active deterrent. Washington needs to do better.
Though the US military operates submarines in the Arctic and is increasingly active in the space domain, these are not visible forms of military power projection. Deterrence is difficult without a visible presence; denial is impossible without a visible deterrent. If the United States is serious about homeland defense, it must dedicate forces to its homeland defense command and pursue unconventional alternatives to achieving a greater Arctic presence, and thus a more visible deterrent.
More broadly, the United States needs a different approach, one that utilizes available assets now while it works to acquire specific assets later. To expand Arctic presence and contribute to deterrence and homeland defense, Washington must leverage the current capabilities of supporting scientific agencies like the National Science Foundation, the United States Academic Research Fleet scheduled through the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System, the Office of Naval Research, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Federal Fleet Assets and Utilization
Considering its economic and security relevance, the United States cannot afford to be Arctic absent. In the last nine years, Russia built fourteen new icebreakers, ten million tons of goods transited the northern sea route, and the first cruise ship transited the Northwest Passage. The Arctic region is booming with activity and the potential for more is rapidly growing. Despite the economic value and increased foreign activity, US Coast guard assets alone are not enough to do what is necessary to maintain the needed presence and secure US interests in the harsh, remote, and challenging environment.
The US government’s oceangoing assets extend beyond just the capabilities of the Coast Guard and Navy. Together, the vessels of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and the Coast Guard comprise the Federal Oceanographic Fleet. As of 2016, the fleet numbered thirty-five vessels. Of these, the United States has four polar-designated vessels: the Coast Guard’s Polar Star and Healy and the NSF’s contracted vessels, Nathaniel B. Palmer and Laurence M. Gould—both of which provide dedicated support to the US Antarctic Program.
While not icebreakers, both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have vessels capable of limited polar region operations. The Sikuliaq, owned by the NSF and operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, can operate in ice two and a half feet thick while many NOAA ships can operate in first-year ice. Despite funding constraints, agency-specific mandates, and legislation, there remain ample opportunities to leverage the shared federal assets and capabilities to bridge the icebreaker gap and ensure US soft power presence throughout the Arctic.
There are signs that the US government is beginning to appreciate these opportunities. In 2020, President Donald Trump issued a memo about safeguarding US interests in the polar regions. The memo directs the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to look for options to bridge the gap in polar vessel capability until the new Polar Security Cutters are online. This presents the opportunity for the Federal Oceanographic Fleet, not DoD, to fill the gap. As Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl L. Schultz has argued, “If we’re not present, if we don’t own the environment today, guess who owns it tomorrow—our competitors.” While Russia and China race to build icebreakers and work to grow their Arctic influence and strategic advantage, the United States does not have to be a bystander limited by aging infrastructure and competing operational demands. Turning to the Federal Oceanographic Fleet for soft power presence bridges the gap until modern polar-dedicated vessels come online.
Scientists are clamoring to work in these remote polar regions, which means these ships can be there for presence and also to enable work of scientific and economic significance to the United States. The assets are there and available. If Admiral Schultz is right and presence today is key in the Arctic, then the solution lies within the Federal Oceanographic Fleet.
The NOAA Option
NOAA’s fleet vessels, in particular, are operated by NOAA Corps officers, a commissioned officer corps and one of the eight US uniformed services. NOAA ships sail the world’s oceans conducting scientific research. NOAA is a capable fleet that provides a visible US soft power presence option for contributing to an active Arctic deterrent. NOAA ships have sailed into the Arctic and in pirated waters off the coast of Africa and in the Indian Ocean. NOAA routinely operates in contested international waters and provides a visible US presence. Its fleet vessels have been redirected in response to the BP oil spill, aided the search and recovery efforts for the TWA 800 disaster, and even operated off the coast of Kuwait in the first Gulf War. The gray hulls of the US Navy can’t do it all. Washington can leverage the white hulls of the NOAA fleet—commanded by NOAA Corps officers—for future Arctic presence, contributing to deterrence, and ultimately enhancing defense.
The NOAA Corps mission, in part, provides officers for leadership in the armed forces during national emergency. It’s difficult to argue that if the security situation in Burma constitutes a US national emergency, increasing Russian activity in the Arctic closer to US sovereign airspace and waters—coupled with Russia’s international belligerence—is not conceivably also an emergency. As a scientific research agency with an operational fleet led by commissioned uniformed officers who have affirmed their commitment to defend the constitution against all enemies, NOAA is uniquely suited to contribute to an active defense.
While NOAA Corps officers can be transferred into the armed forces during national emergencies, in accordance with the NOAA Corps mission, doing so at this point is premature. We do not need to realign NOAA Corps officers for the Arctic threat via service in the armed forces, provided we acknowledge that it exists and take preemptive and preventive action in defense of the homeland. Instead, Washington policymakers and strategists should consider NOAA’s untapped homeland defense utility and seek ways to more deliberately align Arctic research missions with those that can offer corresponding value by way of presence and deterrence.
America’s fourth coast is its forgotten coast. Washington has effectively locked its front door while leaving the back door wide open. The years of Arctic apathy and defense investment elsewhere offer Russia and China an avenue for exploitation. As Washington realizes the gravity of its strategic omission, it is scrambling to draft Arctic strategies, create Arctic security centers, and acquire new platforms for Arctic power projection.
However, strategy is just words on paper without the necessary means to achieve desired ends. Icebreakers take years to build. And, at present, the United States has no viable plans for sustained surface presence in the Arctic—just acquisition plans and platitude-laden strategies. The Arctic is happening now. As Admiral Schultz said, “Just being there and accessing the Arctic is a projection of national sovereignty. It is a national security mission.” The United States cannot afford to wait to establish sustained surface presence in the Arctic. The region is a national security imperative with a widening presence gap. Washington must act now and leverage its Federal Oceanographic Fleet capabilities to fill the gap.
Commander (Sel) Adrienne Hopper is a NOAA Corps officer with multiple sea tours sailing the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, South Pacific, and Arctic Ocean. After serving as the executive officer aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster, she completed a master in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School. She reports to the Hill for her next assignment working on behalf of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
Dr. Ryan Burke is a professor of Military and Strategic Studies at the US Air Force Academy, codirector of Project 6633 at the Modern War Institute, and an affiliate faculty member at the University of Alaska’s Center for Arctic Security and Resilience. Dr. Burke’s latest book, The Polar Pivot (Lynne Rienner, 2022), discusses the polar regions through the lens of strategic competition.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or of any organization the authors are affiliated with, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce, United States Air Force Academy, and Department of the Air Force.
Image credit: Lieutenant Commander Damian Manda, NOAA
The right answer for the wrong reasons. If there's research work to be done in the Arctic — and there's plenty — then send the NOAA to do it. But send them because they're the right answer to a need, rather than as a substitute for the Coast Guard or the Navy, which simply encourages policymakers to move decisions (and spending) to the next election cycle, because "it's working for now." A soft-power solution for the Arctic is a good move at this point, but we shouldn't try to convince ourselves it's something different.
If we had 6 more icebreakers, they could go to the Arctic & break ice.
For what? What military or strategic purpose is served by breaking ice?
The U.S. Navy is already building the platforms that can actually operate in the Arctic, at speed (vice 2 kts) – they're called Virginia class submarines.