Does the US suffer from an “icebreaker gap” as against Russia and China in the Arctic? And does this warrant deploying vessels with advanced weapons at the top of the world?

Admiral Paul Zukunft, who is Commandant of the US Coast Guard, told a House subcommittee in late May that the US may need icebreakers armed with surface-to-air missiles to defend “sovereign” resources uncovered by the melting ice against Russia and China.

“I have to look differently at what an icebreaker does. We need to reserve space, weight and power if we need to strap on an (anti-ship cruise) missile package on it,” Zukunft told US legislators in a pitch for bigger Congressional ship-building outlays.

Are US perceptions of an Arctic challenge from Moscow and Beijing overblown? Some analysts say they are — especially in China’s case. The US icebreaker gap is also being attributed to the fact that Washington has ignored the strategic and legal implications of climate change for years and is belatedly tapping military branches like the Coast Guard to protect critical Arctic assets.

A 2013 US Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic contains 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its natural gas reserves.

Two US icebreakers 

Analysts say the Coast Guard currently has two “functional” (but not always operational) icebreakers for Arctic service. One is 40 years old and is ready to be scrapped. More are needed. But some warn that arming new vessels with missiles and other weaponry could disrupt the little-known cooperation the US has with Russia and China in areas such as Arctic rescue and scientific research. 

US Navy strength in the region is also said to be capable of handling military threats from rival nations — making a move toward advanced firepower by the Coast Guard unnecessary.

“US Coast Guard icebreakers don’t need anti-ship cruise missile capabilities at this stage. And adding such capabilities could make fulfilling the core mission set of US Coast Guard icebreakers more challenging,” says Rockford Weitz, a noted Arctic specialist who is a professor of Practice and a director of the Maritime Studies Program at the Fletcher School of Tufts University in Massachusetts.

“Times have changed, and whether or not icebreakers should be armed with major weapons systems cannot be based on previous circumstances”

Weitz notes the US Coast Guard has historically enjoyed a constructive relationship with the coast guards of other nations in the Arctic — including Russia’s. “Part of the reason for that constructive relationship is the US Coast Guard’s unique mission set among America’s sea services — search and rescue, environmental protection and fisheries regulation,” Weitz said.

Zukunft noted in his recent testimony that Russia is building two icebreaking corvette warships that will carry cruise missiles in the year 2020.

However, the US Navy also has a powerful submarine presence in the Arctic Ocean in the form of SSBNs (nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines) and SSNs (nuclear-powered attack submarines). Weitz notes that the anti-ship cruise missiles carried by these subs can effectively counter similar Russian weapons, though the US Navy currently has no ice-breaking surface warships.

Joseph F. Callo, a naval writer and retired rear admiral in the US Navy Reserve has an opposing view. He notes that purpose-built US Coast Guard ships like icebreakers weren’t traditionally equipped with heavy weapons. “But times have changed, and whether or not icebreakers should be armed with major weapons systems cannot be based on previous circumstances,” he says, stressing that this a personal view.

Callo says the safety of icebreakers’ crews should be a main consideration. He notes that existing US weapons systems could probably be added to counter aircraft and long-range missile attacks without compromising ship performance; adding anti-submarine and heavy weapons would create efficiency and budget issues, however.

Chinese Arctic “threat”?

On China’s purported threat, Zukunft told the sub-committee: “We have seen China, for example, with their icebreaker [in the Arctic region]. […] Next thing we know we see a Chinese mobile offshore drilling unit going into the extended continental shelf to extract what otherwise would be US oil.”

China currently operates one civilian icebreaker, the Ukrainian-built Snow Dragon or Xuelong. A second, domestically-built vessel is expected to enter service by 2019. 

A Chinese firm also announced on June 15 that it has tapped a Dutch shipbuilder to construct an icebreaker that will be China’s first privately owned polar research vessel.

China’s Navy also maintains several icebreakers, some of recent construction, that serve with its Northern Fleet. 

But there is no indication, at this point, that Beijing plans to equip any of these vessels, civilian or military, with advanced weapons.

“China’s icebreakers are focused on scientific exploration in the Arctic. From my perspective, they do not represent a major threat to the US, Canada or Scandinavian Arctic countries,” Weitz says.

China needs oil and gas

Much of China’s focus in the Arctic is on oil and gas. The Chinese state oil company CNOOC has oil exploration pacts with Iceland’s Eykon Energy and the Norwegian state energy company Petoro. China National Petroleum Corporation also has a lucrative stake in the huge Yamal LNG terminal in Russia’s Arctic Siberia.

China has permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, an international body that Arctic littoral states like Russia and US use to govern the Arctic.

There are no published reports that Chinese mobile oil rigs are drilling on the US Arctic shelf as alluded to in Zukunft’s Congressional testimony. But if they are, it would be legal under current international law.

Weitz notes the US has refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which would allow Washington to extend America’s Exclusive Economic Zone to its Arctic continental shelf.

Since the US doesn’t recognize UNCLOS, this leaves such oil and gas resources beyond US jurisdiction and allows nations like China to drill on the US shelf.

‘Putin isn’t really changing the game’

Russia’s Arctic tensions with the US are more problematic and are linked to current face-offs in Syria and the Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly beefed up military units near the Arctic Circle. Russia has 40 icebreakers and is building 11 more.

But some say perceptions of a Russian threat in the Arctic ignore historical and strategic context. Weitz points out that Russia’s primary coast line is the Arctic Ocean, which dwarfs its ocean boundaries in the Pacific, Black and Baltic seas. As a result, he argues that Russia has more economic interests on its Arctic coast than any other Arctic nation.

The US, in comparison, considers its Arctic coastline in Alaska merely it’s “fourth coast.” “It is much less important to America’s national identity and economy than our Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts,” Weitz said.

“China’s icebreakers are focused on scientific exploration in the Arctic. From my perspective, they do not represent a major threat to the US, Canada or Scandinavian Arctic countries”

Given such differences, it’s understandable that Russia has historically invested considerably more resources in creating a fleet of ice-capable surface ships. “So Putin isn’t really changing the game,” Weitz says.

Will the Arctic become a zone of maritime tension similar to the South China Sea? “Compared to the South China Sea, the disputed maritimes boundaries in the Arctic Ocean are relatively small,” Weitz says. So far, the Arctic region hasn’t seen any military tension comparable to the South China Sea, he adds.

Callo says the US should be ready for all Arctic scenarios and must provide icebreaker crews with protection against foreseeable threats.  “Since these weapons are defensive, they should not create issues with such groups as the Arctic Council or the UN,” he stresses.

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times