US, Canada and Finland look to build more icebreakers to counter Russia in the Arctic

Jul 11, 2024, 7:00 AM

President Joe Biden, left, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, right, greet Alexander Stub...

President Joe Biden, left, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, right, greet Alexander Stubb, President of Finland, as they arrive for a welcome ceremony at the NATO summit in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States, Canada and Finland will work together to build up their icebreaker fleets as they look to bolster their defenses in the Arctic, where Russia has been increasingly active, the White House announced Thursday.

The pact announced at the NATO summit calls for enhanced information sharing on polar icebreaker production, allowing for workers and experts from each country to train in shipyards across all three, and promoting to allies the purchase of polar icebreakers from American, Finnish or Canadian shipyards for their own needs.

Daleep Singh, the White House deputy national security adviser for international economics, said it would reinforce to adversaries Russia and China that the U.S. and allies will “doggedly pursue collaboration on industrial policy to increase our competitive edge.”

Beijing has sought to tighten its relationship with Moscow as much of the West has tried to economically isolate Russia in the aftermath of its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

“Without this arrangement, we’d risk our adversaries developing an advantage in a specialized technology with vast geostrategic importance, which could also allow them to become the preferred supplier for countries that also have an interest in purchasing polar icebreakers,” Singh said. “We’re committed to projecting power into the high latitudes alongside our allies and partners. And, that requires a continuous surface presence in the polar regions, both to combat Russian aggression and to limit China’s ability to gain influence.”

Singh noted that the U.S. has only two icebreakers, and both are nearing the end of their usable life. Finland has 12 icebreakers and Canada has nine, while Russia has 36, according to U.S. Coast Guard data.

President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finnish President Alexander Stubb discussed the pact on the sidelines of this week’s summit, which focused largely on the alliance’s efforts to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

During a talk in February at RAND, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter Gautier said the agency has determined it needs eight to nine icebreakers — a mix of heavy polar security cutters and medium Arctic security cutters. Gautier said some test panels were being built in Mississippi and full construction of an icebreaker is slated to begin this year.

As climate change has made it easier to access the Arctic region, the need for more American icebreakers has become more acute, especially when compared with the Russian fleet.

According to a Government Accountability Office report, the U.S. hasn’t built a heavy polar icebreaker in almost 50 years. The 399-foot Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star was commissioned in 1976 and the 420-foot Coast Guard Cutter Healy was commissioned in 1999.

Building an icebreaker can be challenging because it has to be able to withstand the brutal crashing through ice that can be as thick as 21 feet (6.4 meters) and wildly varying sea and air temperatures, the report said.

Singh said the U.S., Canada and Finland would sign a memorandum of understanding by the end of the year to formalize the pact.

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US, Canada and Finland look to build more icebreakers to counter Russia in the Arctic