Icebreaking ships are not America’s top priority in the Arctic

Icebreaking ships are not America’s top priority in the Arctic
© Getty Images

Icebreakers are having a moment, in the world of maritime security, with growing concerns over an “icebreaker gap” and America’s underachievement. The Russians have dozens. We have two. Canada has more; so does Finland. Outgoing Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft made the icebreaker gap part of his swan song; President TrumpDonald John TrumpMueller report findings could be a 'good day' for Trump, Dem senator says Trump officials heading to China for trade talks next week Showdown looms over Mueller report MORE has spoken about it; and in various public fora, politicians from Alaska to Maine have sounded the alarm.

“I get very impatient because I don’t see us prioritizing icebreakers as a national asset,” said Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiRed dresses displayed around American Indian museum to memorialize missing, murdered native women Juan Williams: Don't rule out impeaching Trump The 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration MORE (R-Alaska). “People can quibble about what we have versus what Russia has versus what China is building. All I can tell you is we are not in the game right now.” Her colleague, Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanRepublicans defend McCain amid Trump attacks Overnight Defense: Senate rejects border emergency in rebuke to Trump | Acting Pentagon chief grilled on wall funding | Warren confronts chief over war fund budget Pentagon chief calls reports of charges to allies erroneous: 'We won't do cost plus 50' MORE (R-Alaska), compared quantity and quality. “Right now, the Russians have superhighways, and we have dirt roads with potholes.”


A continent away, Maine is also seized with the icebreaker shortage. “This is the highway of the Arctic,” said Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingOvernight Defense: Senate rejects border emergency in rebuke to Trump | Acting Pentagon chief grilled on wall funding | Warren confronts chief over war fund budget Shanahan grilled on Pentagon's border wall funding Senators offer bipartisan bill to fix 'retail glitch' in GOP tax law MORE (I-Maine), echoing Sullivan’s road metaphor. “It’s like not having roads if you don’t have icebreakers.”


If you don’t know much about the Arctic, it’s easy to shorthand it into icebreaker tallies. Truth be told, the U.S. probably should have more icebreakers, but the Arctic deserves to be thought of as more than a place with ice that needs breaking. Rather, it is a region in need of connections.

The road metaphor used by Sullivan and King is apt. The Arctic needs not only roads, but railways, ports, tunnels, and broadband — essential infrastructure for communities. The people who live and work in the high north want to be hooked up to the wider world — and perhaps more importantly — to each other. The following initiatives, from gleam in the eye to construction crane, speak to that desire:

  • Finland and Estonia are talking seriously about a 30-mile-long undersea tunnel that would connect Helsinki to Tallinn — and the rest of Europe. How the two governments would pay for what would become the world’s longest tunnel is uncertain, but Angry Birds entrepreneur Peter Vesterbacka — a sort of Elon Musk of Finland — thinks he can build it faster and better than any government consortium — with help of Chinese financing.
  • The Port of Narvik, Norway, well above the Arctic Circle, is being eyed as a terminus of an EU railway transportation corridor, which starts in Malta. Narvik and the 27-mile Ofoten rail line, which connects it to Sweden, would be upgraded from “core network” to “core corridor,” and receive higher funding priority.
  • Swedes have already announced the construction of the North Bothnian line between Umea northward to Lulea, a 134-mile extension pushing well into the Arctic Circle.
  • The Canadian government has decided to restore rail service to the Port of Churchill in the Hudson Bay — Canada’s main Arctic deepwater port. A private company (Denver-based OmniTrax) abandoned the effort after catastrophic flooding in 2017.
  • The melting ice allowed a private company to lay fiber optic cable under the Alaskan Arctic and give remote North Slope communities internet broadband service, a huge unmet need for the education, telemedicine, and e-commerce sectors. The company, Quintillion, built a 1,200-mile subsea fiber system, the first ever in the North American Arctic. The recent arrest of the CEO for using fraudulently signed letters to attract investors does not diminish the company’s engineering feat — although it hints at how difficult it can be to attract investment in a sparsely populated region.

There’s no question that the U.S. faces an icebreaker gap in the Arctic, but for the people still hoping for a five-bar phone signal, it’s time to talk about the education gap, the opportunity gap, the transportation gap, and the communications gap — and for those of us who live south of the Arctic Circle — our own knowledge gap.

Mary Thompson-Jones is the author of “To the Secretary” (Norton, 2016) and is the chairwoman for Women in Diplomacy and National Security Studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.