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Arms Race In the Arctic

In the past few weeks, both the U.S. and Russian militaries took steps to better arm themselves for the newest area of great power competition: the Arctic Circle.

On May 25, the Russian military announced a contract for five Mi-8AMTSh-VA helicopters scheduled for delivery at the end of this year. The new helicopters are specially designed to operate at low temperatures and low visibility, making them ideally suited for the difficult conditions of the Arctic.

The next day, the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee approved $1 billion to build a heavy polar icebreaker as part of the Pentagon’s $574 billion budget. Polar icebreakers are used by the U.S. Coast Guard to - as the name implies - crack through and break large pieces of ice, allowing ships to navigate previously frozen and inaccessible waterways in the Arctic.

As Keith Johnson recently noted in Foreign Policy, America’s icebreaker fleet has been falling behind right at a time when it’s needed more than ever:

But the United States is lagging behind. It currently has a single heavy icebreaker nearing the end of its operational life and a medium icebreaker used in the Arctic. For years, despite pleas by the Coast Guard, Congress was loath to fund new ships, which can cost upwards of $1 billion each… But building two new ships would simply replace the two currently in service and would still leave the Coast Guard short of the six-strong fleet it says it needs. What’s more, it will take at least a decade to build the first of the new heavy icebreakers, even if funding is guaranteed. That leaves a dicey window in the meantime.

In comparison to the Coast Guard’s two-vessel fleet, Russia has more than 40 icebreakers and plans to build even more over the next decade. Last week, Russia added to its fleet with the introduction of a new naval icebreaker.

The ability to effectively operate in the Arctic, whether by air or by sea, has taken on greater importance as a result of global warming. The temperature increases being felt across the world are even more extreme at the poles, leading to record-breaking ice melt and opening up access to new waterways for intercontinental trade and significant energy reserves. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic Circle holds 13% of world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves.

Accessing most of these untapped energy reserves remains prohibitively expensive and difficult to be economically viable, but as the Arctic ice continues to melt, these resources will increasingly become an area of competition for major powers such as the United States, Russia, and China, as well as Arctic-neighboring states such as Canada and the Scandinavian countries. The news from both Russia and the United States last week shows these two countries both realize they need to start preparing now for this new competition.