The USA and Its Icebreakers


Last Friday, on January 26, 2024, at the Baltzavod shipyard, the fifth serial nuclear-powered icebreaker of Project 22220, named "Leningrad," was laid down, and the sixth, "Stalingrad," was announced. The continuation of the course towards expanding the Russian icebreaker group in the Arctic Ocean is seen as a pledge that Russia will be able to seriously compete for the Arctic. In this light, the question arises: what is the state of icebreakers among the main antagonists – the United States?

Crew members from the USCG medium icebreaker Healy pose for a crew photo while in dry dock at Vigor Shipyard in Seattle, March 31, 2016. USCG photo.

To the disappointment of Americans, the situation is currently unimpressive.

At present, the United States Coast Guard, responsible for icebreakers, has only two operational vessels. These are the well-known Healy (classified as a medium icebreaker by American standards) and the heavy icebreaker Polar Star. While the former is relatively new, having been built in 2000, the latter entered service way back in 1976. Currently, it has surpassed its "warranty period" of 30 years, so efforts are being made to preserve it. There are no plans to retire it from the fleet in the near future, as there is no alternative, and the veteran can still work. Especially since it has a non-operational "twin" of a similar project, Polar Sea, which experienced an engine breakdown in 2010 and was designated as a spare parts donor for its counterpart.

Such a situation does not align well with the broad Arctic ambitions of the United States. Therefore, Washington is not intending to sit idly.

Throughout the past year, the Coast Guard has concluded that to maintain capabilities in the Arctic, it will need 8-9 polar icebreakers, with 4-5 heavy and 4-5 medium-class vessels. The former are designated as "polar" (able to navigate near the poles), while the latter are termed "Arctic" (capable of operating in northern waters in general). These figures were included in last year's December report to Congress.

The construction program envisions that the heavies will be delivered first, while the medium icebreakers will follow in the second wave – their technical specifications are still under development. Accordingly, three heavy "polar" icebreakers, costing $2.7 billion (in 2020 prices), are currently planned for construction, with funds allocated and contracts signed for two of them. However, construction is not going smoothly for the American counterparts – the company Halter Marine, which won these two contracts, has changed ownership and is not showing the pace desired by Washington. Of course, sympathies are extended (or not).

To avoid an "ice pause," Americans are taking measures.

Firstly, they intend to acquire a used foreign icebreaker for retrofitting this year. Finland is the key candidate as the seller. For this task, the Coast Guard is requesting $125 million.

Secondly, the United States will rely on their new "geopolitical acquisitions" in the Arctic – Sweden and the aforementioned Finland. And this is more serious because the Finns not only have a modern icebreaker fleet but, most importantly, substantial material capabilities and expertise in the construction of icebreakers of any class and size.

In this situation, Russia will strive to maintain its pace. Yes, Moscow's positions are currently strong, while its geopolitical "partner" is facing objective difficulties, but there's no room for complacency.

Based on a post by Telegram-Chanel «Kapitan Arktika»



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