US Navy to step up patrols of Arctic

The US navy's two operating icebreakers USCGC Healy (pictured), and USCGC Polar Star. Credit: USCG - Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Anderson

The US Navy is drawing up plans to send vessels to the Arctic, in a “demonstration of capability” in the region – but faces a shortage of ice-capable ships.

The news follows an operation involving aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman and several other vessels in the Norwegian Arctic last year. Naval Secretary Richard V. Spencer was quoted in Arctic Today as having “talked” about vessels making transits through international waters in the Arctic.

The move is calculated to challenge Russian activity in the region, which, at the beginning of this month, included releasing new regulations that would effectively bar the Northern Sea Route (NSR) to any vessel not carrying a Russian ice pilot, as well as demanding detailed information for every vessel transiting the route 45 days in advance.

But with only two operating icebreakers at its disposal – USCGC Healy, and USCGC Polar Star – there could be considerable risk to the Navy vessels, which have not been equipped with ice-hardened hulls since the Ticonderoga-class cruisers first constructed in 1980.

Meanwhile Russia maintains a fleet of 54 icebreakers, including the nuclear-powered, Soviet built Taymyr, Vaygach, Yamal and 50 Let Pobedy, as well as the 2006-built nuclear icebreaker Arktika, some of the vessels which currently would have to be called out if USCGC Polar Star broke down – as it routinely does.

However, design work is underway on a new US heavy icebreaking vessel, due to enter service in 2023, with space, draft, and electrical capacity set aside for offensive weapons to be installed, if deemed a requirement