We can make do with three, says a committee of the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The NSF committee proposes three criteria for polar class icebreakers: (a) able to sail in significant sea ice in either the Arctic or the Antarctic; (b) Ice strengthening sufficient for polar ice; and (c) most significantly, installed power of at least 10,000 horsepower.
For practical purposes we only have one icebreaker, says Scott Borgerson, in the March/April 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs (Arctic Meltdown. The Economic and Security Implications of Global Warming):
...Washington has forfeited its ability to assert sovereignty in the Arctic by allowing its icebreaker fleet to atrophy. The United States today funds a navy as large as the next 17 in the world combined, yet it has just one seaworthy oceangoing icebreaker -- a vessel that was built more than a decade ago and that is not optimally configured for Arctic missions. Russia, by comparison, has a fleet of 18 icebreakers. And even China operates one icebreaker, despite its lack of Arctic waters. Through its own neglect, the world's sole superpower -- a country that borders the Bering Strait and possesses over 1,000 miles of Arctic coastline -- has been left out in the cold.
We actually have four seagoing icebreakers. The Polar Star and Polar Sea are the most powerful non-nuclear icebreakers in the world, capable of traveling at three knots through six feet of ice. They have 60,000 horsepower each. These ships are over 30 years old, and beyond their planned lifespans. The Polar Star is in caretaker status, but we've recently invested $30 million in repairs to the Polar Sea and she is currently functional. She left for a two month trip to the Arctic this past week (Seattle icebreaker Polar Sea heading for Arctic to study seals). However, the recent investment in the Polar Sea is only a short term solution.
The more modern Healy is less powerful (30,000 hp) and only capable of moving at three knots through four and a half feet, rather than six feet, of ice. She is about eight or nine years into her service life. However, unlike the Polar Sea, the Healy can't access the central Arctic Ocean. Finally, the National Science Foundation leases the Nathaniel B. Palmer for scientific work. The Palmer is the least powerful (12,700 hp), with an icebreaking capacity of three feet at three knots.
The U.S. has reached agreements with other countries to meet some of its ice breaking requirements. The Canadians have been providing the ice breaking support for the annual resupply missions to our air force base at Thule in northern Greenland. A vessel leased from a Russian firm has provided support in recent years for resupply missions to our scientific base at McMurdo Sound in the Antarctic.
Borgerson's comparison of U.S. and Russian fleet sizes may be somewhat misleading. U.S. and Russian Arctic ice breaking requirements are going to be very different. The map below shows the Arctic coasts of both countries, and centers of population adjacent to the Arctic:
The U.S. Arctic coast extends over 40 degrees of longitude, while the Russian coast extends over 150 degrees. Moreover, Russia has large population centers adjacent to the Arctic, while the U.S. does not. Anchorage is on the south coast of Alaska and has year-round port opening to the Gulf of Alaska. So far the primary resource we've exploited on our Arctic coast is oil, which we bring south to a year-round port on the Gulf of Alaska by pipeline. Russia exploits or would like to exploit mineral resources, such as nickel, that have to be brought out by ship or barge. Russia is likely to need significantly more icebreaking capacity than us.
If our requirements aren't Russian-sized, how big are they? How many ships do we need? Borgerson doesn't say, and to be fair, he probably didn't intend to imply we need to match the Russians. A National Science Council committee did give some thought to this question in 2005. The committee chair, Anita Jones, briefed Congress about their conclusions: POLAR ICEBREAKERS IN A CHANGING WORLD: AN ASSESSMENT OF U.S. NEEDS (September 26, 2006) The report itself can be read online, here.
The starting point for thinking about how many icebreakers we need, is to think about what we need them for. The U.S. is an Arctic power. Alaska has an Arctic Ocean border in the north, and to her west, much of the Bering Sea freezes each year. The U.S. also has interests in the Antarctic. The committee's list of U.S. polar interests tends to fall into three components:
- Global warming will open the Arctic to new commercial, tourist, scientific and military activity, and encourage activity for more of the year. At the same time, global warming will increase uncertainty about ice conditions and movement. At some time in the future the Arctic may be ice free year-round, but that is not imminent. Increasing activity will require increasing icebreaking support for escort, search and rescue, pollution response, and law enforcement. Only a polar class icebreaker can guarantee access to carry out these functions.
- The opening of the Arctic creates new demands on the U.S. to assert its presence, and support its national interests. Icebreaker functions can serve to assert treaty rights and support national defense against traditional and terroristic threats. The U.S. hasn't had icebreaker patrols of its own coast for many years. The committee thinks these should be reinstituted. Again, only polar class icebreakers can provide the guaranteed access to the Arctic.
- Finally, the U.S. needs to provide access to the Arctic to support scientific research, including sea bottom mapping. Research will inform policy decisions about the thawing Arctic, will support U.S. claims under the Law of the Sea Treaty, will support basic scientific understandings with implications beyond the Arctic, and - especially in the Antarctic - ongoing scientific research work provides presence and supports the U.S. position at the table when decision making takes place.
So how many icebreakers do we need? The committee felt that given advances in technology, "creative" crewing, and efficient management of the icebreakers, we could meet increasing demands with a fleet of the current size and composition. That is, three polar class icebreakers (the Healy and two larger ones) and something like the Palmer.
The committee thinks it's pretty obvious that we need to replace at least one of the larger vessels. Right now, the Healy doesn't give us a guaranteed ability to resupply McMurdo Station, or enter the Central Arctic Ocean. The committee goes to some lengths to justify a second larger vessel. Here's Jones' testimony:
One new polar icebreaker is insufficient for several logical reasons. First, a single ship cannot be in more than one location at one time. No matter how technologically advanced or efficiently operated, a single polar icebreaker can be operational (on station) in the polar regions for only a portion of any year. An icebreaker requires regular maintenance and technical support from shipyards and industrial facilities, must reprovision regularly, and needs to effect periodic crew change-outs. These functions cannot be conducted practically or economically “in the ice” and therefore require transit time to and from polar operating areas. A single icebreaker, therefore, could not meet any reasonable standard of active and influential presence and reliable, at-will access throughout the polar regions.
A second consideration supporting the need for more than a single polar icebreaker is the potential risk of failure in the harsh conditions of polar operations. Icebreakers are the only ships designed to collide regularly with hard objects and to go independently where no other surface vessels can survive. Despite their intrinsic robustness, damage and system failure are always a risk and the U.S. fleet must have enough depth to provide backup assistance. Being forced to operate with only a single icebreaker would necessarily require the ship to accept a more conservative operating profile, avoiding more challenging ice conditions because reliable assistance would not be available. A second capable icebreaker, either operating elsewhere or in homeport, would provide assured backup assistance and would allow for more robust operations by the other ship.
From a more strategic, longer-term perspective, two new icebreakers will far better position the nation for the increasing challenges emerging in both polar regions. Building two new icebreakers will ensure maintenance of this level of capability. A second new ship would allow the U.S. Coast Guard to reestablish an active patrol presence in U.S. waters north of Alaska to meet statutory responsibilities that will inevitably derive from increased human activity, economic development, and environmental changes. Other unplanned situations can include search-and-rescue cases, pollution incidents where initial response and U.S. Coast Guard monitoring are necessary, and assistance to ships threatened with grounding or damage by ice. The likelihood of these situations will increase as the number of ice-strengthened tankers, tourist ships, and other vessels in the polar regions grows.
Moreover, a second new ship will leverage the possibilities for simultaneous operations in widely disparate geo-graphic areas (such as concurrent operations in the Arctic and Antarctic), open additional solutions for conducting Antarctic logistics, allow safer multiple-ship operations in the most demanding ice conditions and areas, and increase opportunities for international expeditions. Finally, an up-front decision to build two new polar icebreakers will allow economies in the design and construction process and provide a predictable cost reduction for the second ship.
Sources: Photo of the Healy at the start of the post is from Milcom Monitoring Post (September 28, 2007). The map showing the population distribution is from UNEP GRID Arendal and was prepared by Philippe Rekacewicz.