Sharing Arctic Assets - How Strategic Cooperation Can Answer US Icebreaking Needs

The United States is currently contemplating the acquisition of replacement heavy icebreakers. Unlike one would gather from domestic discussions, the US is not alone. The global fleet of about 110 icebreakers is aging rapidly, and other Western nations with icebreaking needs such as Canada, Finland and Sweden have begun icebreaker renewal programs. Capacity needs exist also in many other countries active in polar areas.

What could this concurrence of national icebreaking needs mean to the US and other Arctic nations? Has anyone stopped to consider icebreaking partnerships with the private sector and bilateral or international arrangements? Apparently not seriously enough judging by the latest hearings in the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

In a Subcommittee hearing on 14 June 2016, USCG Vice Commandant Admiral Charles D. Michel stated that "-- there's nothing out there on Planet Earth that you can lease in the heavy icebreaking area". In another hearing on 12 July, the Admiral said the USCG "does not operate commercial vessels". These statements sound strange in the ears of a Finn.

Finland is a forerunner in international collaboration as well as public-private arrangements within icebreaking services. The country can procure icebreaking services from both public and private partners and has currently three icebreaking treaties: one between Nordic countries and bilateral treaties with both Sweden and Russia. During Arctic summer when the fleet is not required in the Baltic Sea, Finnish icebreakers are available for charter for international missions in polar areas.

Considering three facts,
  1. that the US is expected to need the services of more than one heavy icebreaker in the next 25 years,
  2. that there is a gap of several years between the end of the currently operating icebreakers' service life and the expected delivery date for a newbuild, and
  3. that there is heavy icebreaking capacity available for charter elsewhere,
it is odd that sharing icebreaker assets with the private sector and other nations seems to be a shunned option in the US. Why couldn't we consider for example using the Baltic Sea icebreaker fleet to fill the gaps in North America?

Icebreakers in the Baltic Sea are utilized at a low rate, around 30 to 40 percent annually, mainly just during the harshest winter months. Sharing icebreaker assets with other Arctic nations would raise this rate and bring affordable strategic icebreaking options to the US.

Finland's newest icebreaker Polaris costs about 150 million USD, a fraction of the price budgeted for a new USCG icebreaker (1 billion USD). Finland has been building icebreakers for a century and it does not take a decade to build one there. Finnish shipyards have recent experience in building modern heavy icebreakers.

Finland can provide designing, building and operating expertise as well as tailor-made services in the heavy icebreaking area. In addition, Finnish partners can help the US benchmark and try out best practices for example in the form of a few years chartering agreement.

Certainly there are some barriers to this kind of cooperation. But if there is political will, there is also a way. Compared to building a heavy icebreaker or coping without one for several years, chartering, joint ventures and Arctic-to-Arctic partnerships are all good options. Cheaper and quicker options the US should seriously consider.