In 1867, the U.S. secretary of State, William Seward, struck a deal to buy Alaska from Russia for 2 cents per acre. Critics panned the deal as wasteful and labeled it “Seward’s Folly.” But Seward’s strategic foresight has brought America a bounty of natural resources, a beautiful new frontier, and a pivotal edge in World War II and in the Cold War.
To this day, the waters off the Alaskan coast supply our nation with critical petroleum, fish stocks and deep-sea minerals. Yet, the United States is losing strategic ground in the Arctic to our adversaries Russia and China. A decisive tool in that rivalry is the icebreaker, a vessel uniquely equipped to cut through deep layers of Arctic ice.
Russia has the world’s largest icebreaker fleet, numbering over 40 total with three more under construction and a dozen planned in the next decade. China, too, is building ice breakers and investing in Arctic infrastructure. By contrast, the U.S. Coast Guard has just two polar icebreakers: the Polar Star and the Healy.
Until recently, those two ships divided their efforts at opposite poles — the Polar Star resupplying the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, and the Healy protecting U.S. interests in the Arctic. A recent shipboard fire aboard the Healy has put half of America’s polar icebreaker fleet out of commission. As a result, the Polar Star is now America’s only operational polar icebreaker.
This unfortunate turn of events has created new space for Russia and China to exert maritime influence. Both powers are continuing to invest heavily in Arctic-capable assets and erode American influence.
This summer, the Russian Navy conducted its largest war games exercise since the Cold War near Alaska. Russia has also reopened over 50 previously closed Soviet military facilities and positioned early warning radar and missile systems near Alaska.
China is upping its polar capabilities by pouring money into the construction of a fifth Antarctic research station, completing its second polar icebreaker and conducting six expeditions to the Arctic. In recent years China has declared itself a “near-Arctic state,” achieved permanent observer status on the multinational Arctic Council and announced its “Polar Silk Road” economic ambitions.
The Arctic is a geopolitical convergence point. Without new investment in polar capabilities, our adversaries' influence will grow. The risk is less protection of U.S. commercial and scientific vessels, weaker enforcement of international law, and an increasing threat to our national security.
At the center of U.S. efforts to reverse this trend is the Polar Security Cutter program. This program will produce a fleet of six new icebreakers — including the first heavy icebreakers built in U.S. shipyards in over 40 years. Congress has already funded the first vessel, which should undergo sea trials by 2024. The Coast Guard has requested funding for the second vessel.
These ships cannot come fast enough. Even so, the Coast Guard will have to stretch the service of the Polar Star until at least 2023, more than two decades beyond the ship’s expected useful life.
President Donald Trump raised the alarm in June when he instructed six members of his Cabinet to make recommendations to achieve “a ready, capable, and available fleet of polar security icebreakers.” The president understands that two aged and broken icebreakers are a far cry from the needs of the world’s largest trading economy and military superpower.
Secretary Seward made that historic deal for Alaska 153 years ago. The only folly would be to cede to our adversaries, through underinvestment and neglect, the Arctic advantage the United States has long enjoyed.
This op-ed was orginally ran in Defense News.