Trump memo orders new icebreaker fleet by 2029

Harry Lye 11 June 2020 (Last Updated June 11th, 2020 14:32)

US President Donald Trump has ordered a cross-government push to deliver a new fleet of icebreaker ships by 2029 aimed at bolstering US presence in the polar regions and maintaining a critical foothold in the high north.

Trump memo orders new icebreaker fleet by 2029
The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star operates near two seals off the shore of Antarctica. Image: US Coast Guard.

In the memo, Trump calls for a ‘ready, capable, and available fleet of polar security icebreakers’ to allow the US to maintain a strong presence in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

The memorandum released on Tuesday was circulated to some government departments including the Department of Defense and Homeland Security indicating the push for new icebreakers and polar presence will be a cross-government goal.

The memo notes existing plans to build a series of three Polar Security Cutters (PSC) but adds that the Departments involved should assess ‘expanded operational capabilities’ for Icebreakers that are not yet under contract.

The memo notes that assessments of the vessels should look at what armaments might be needed to defend the vessels when underway and evaluate the merits of nuclear propulsion to enable the new icebreaking fleet to keep pace with near-peer threats such as Russia.

The memo reads: “To help protect our national interests in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, and to retain a strong Arctic security presence alongside our allies and partners, the United States requires a ready, capable, and available fleet of polar security icebreakers that is operationally tested and fully deployable by Fiscal Year 2029.”

The memo has asked for a review of what is needed from the US’ polar security icebreaking fleet. The review will also include the ability for the US to maintain a persistent presence in the Antarctic region.

Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) sea power research fellow Dr Sidharth Kaushal told Naval Technology that the new icebreakers are a critical move for the US to maintain a position in the Arctic region.

Kaushal said: “The new investments are critical to maintaining an arctic presence. Up until this point, Russia has had a veritable monopoly on icebreakers in the region with its fleet far outstripping those of other states. This has meant that in the event that the NSR opens up, Russian coastguard and naval vessels would have had a competitive advantage with regards to enforcing territorial claims. Also, Russian policymakers have floated the idea of insisting that civilian shipping moving through Russia’s expansive claimed EEZ use the services of Russian pilots and icebreakers for a fee.

“Ensuring that there is not a Russian monopoly over the icebreakers necessary to peacetime civilian traffic will likely be a big part of the US approach to the region by enabling allied coastguards to enforce their own claims and ensuring that Russia does not have a monopoly over the icebreakers so critical to civilian shipping.”

Kaushal added that the investments were also important as without new vessels the US Coast Guard would essentially be handing over control over the are to Russia.

Kaushal said: “Without a significant investment in icebreakers, the US Coast Guard will find maintaining a presence in this region to be difficult, and the US would cede de facto control over the NSR to Russia which would be the partner of necessity for countries seeking to use this route for trade.”

Trump has ordered a study of the ‘comparative operational and fiscal benefits and risks’ of an ice-breaking fleet of at least three heavy PSCs to be delivered in 60 days. The study will be lead by the US Coastguard, US Navy, and the Secretary of Energy.

At a minimum, the study will include a look at the use cases in the Arctic that cover ‘the full range of national and economic security missions’ that could be undertaken by a class of medium PSCs, and how these ships uses could differ from the Heavy PSCs already planned. The memo adds that these use cases will determine the ‘optimal number’ and types of icebreakers needed for a persistent presence in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

The memo adds that the study should also: “ An assessment of expanded operational capabilities, with estimated associated costs, for both heavy and medium PSCs not yet contracted for, specifically including the maximum use of any such PSC with respect to its ability to support national security objectives through the use of the following: unmanned aviation, surface, and undersea systems; space systems; sensors and other systems to achieve and maintain maritime domain awareness; command and control systems; secure communications and data transfer systems; and intelligence-collection systems.

“This assessment shall also evaluate defensive armament adequate to defend against threats by near-peer competitors and the potential for nuclear-powered propulsion”

Once the size and shape of the icebreaking fleet have been determined, the US will identify and assess at least two possible basing locations for the polar fleet in the US, and a further two possible locations for overseas bases that can expand the reach of the vessels. The memo notes that the study of basing locations should also include ‘potential burden-sharing opportunities for basing with the Department of Defense and allies and partners, as appropriate.’

In anticipation of the expected 2022 to 2029 operational degradation of the US’s only heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, the memo orders an analysis of available vessels that can bridge the gap until the new icebreakers come into service. The search for interim vessels the memo notes should take into account leasing options and both foreign and domestic suppliers.

The memo specifically adds that an analysis of possible interim vessels should include a look at the ‘operational risk associated with using a leased vessel as compared to a purchased vessel to conduct specified missions set forth in this memorandum.’

The memo adds: “In the interest of securing a fully-capable polar security icebreaking fleet that is capable of providing a persistent presence in the Arctic and Antarctic regions at the

lowest possible cost, the Secretary of State shall coordinate with the Secretary of Homeland Security in identifying viable polar security icebreaker leasing options, provided by partner nations, as a near- to mid-term (Fiscal Years 2022-2029) bridging strategy to mitigate future operational degradation of the USCGC Polar Star.”

In advance of future acquisitions, the memo orders the US Secretary of State and Secretary of Homeland Security to ‘identify partner nations with proven foreign shipbuilding capability and expertise in icebreaker construction.’

US Arctic Strategy

The push for a new fleet of heavy and medium icebreakers fits into the US focus in the Polar regions outlined by a Department of Defence ‘Arctic Strategy’ document provided to Congress last year.

The report reads: “DoD’s desired end-state for the Arctic is a secure and stable region in which US national security interests are safeguarded, the US homeland is defended, and nations work cooperatively to address shared challenges.

“Protecting US national security interests in the Arctic will require the Joint Force to sustain its competitive military advantages in the Indo-Pacific and Europe, identified in the NDS as key regions of strategic competition, and to maintain a credible deterrent for the Arctic region.”

The 2019 report noted the need for six new Polar Security Cutters needed by the US Coast Guard to maintain its mission as the lead agency for homeland security in the Arctic. In the report, the DOD said it would ‘continue to support this program, as it provides a key capability to ensure interoperability between Coast Guard and Navy vessels and to support US presence in the Arctic region.’

The move from the US to bolster its icebreaking fleet comes as the high north is seen as increasingly militarised, and contested, with powers including Russia and China seen as making attempts to assert dominance in the region.

The report adds: “Russia views itself as a polar great power and is the largest Arctic nation by landmass, population, and military presence above the Arctic Circle. Russia’s commercial investments in the Arctic region have been matched by continued defence investments and activities that strengthen both its territorial defence and its ability to control the NSR.

“Russia formed the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command in December 2014 to coordinate its renewed emphasis on the Arctic.”

The DoD added that Russia has ‘gradually’ increased its presence in the high north through the creation of new Arctic units, refurbishing old airfields and establishing new military bases along its Arctic coast. This, the report notes, has been combined with a concerted effort to increase Russias’s Arctic missile defence and sensor capacity.

On China, the report added: “China’s operational presence in the Arctic is more limited. It includes China’s icebreaking vessels, the Xuelong and newly-constructed Xuelong 2, and civilian research efforts, which could support a strengthened, future Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, potentially including deployment of submarines to the region.”