- US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy made a rare trip to the North Pole at the end of September.
- Healy is one of only two icebreakers operated by the Coast Guard, and both of them are aging.
- US officials often warn that the US is falling behind the growing Russian and Chinese icebreaker fleets.
The US Coast Guard’s largest ship — the icebreaker Healy — reached the North Pole on September 30 on what was only the second unaccompanied trip there by a US ship.
The trip comes amid increasing concern about military activity in the Arctic, where climate change is making waterways more accessible. Perceptions of an icebreaker gap have been a major worry, with US officials warning that the US’s two aging vessels are a far cry from the Russian and Chinese fleets.
Healy has sailed to the North Pole three times since it entered service in 1999. In 2015 it became the first US ship to reach the pole unaccompanied. For the icebreaker’s latest trip to the pole, part of a monthslong oceanographic mission that began in July, it left Alaska in early September, conducting research along the way.
The crew was “proud” to reach the pole, Healy’s commanding officer, Capt. Kenneth Boda, said in a release, calling it a “rare opportunity” and “a highlight of our Coast Guard careers.”
The Coast Guard said the trip “also supported US national security objectives for the Arctic region by projecting a persistent ice-capable US presence in US Arctic waters and patrolling our maritime border with Russia.”
The Biden administration highlighted those objectives, and the role of icebreakers, in its national strategy for the Arctic, released this month to update the Arctic strategy released in 2013.
The strategy listed security as the first of its four pillars, emphasizing a need to improve awareness “to detect and track potential airborne and maritime threats” in the Arctic and a need for an enhanced presence there to support homeland defense and global power projection.
“This includes expanding the US Coast Guard icebreaker fleet to support persistent presence in the US Arctic and additional presence as needed in the European Arctic,” the document adds.
‘Absolutely a priority’
Healy is the US Coast Guard’s largest ship and can break through 4.5 feet of ice at a continuous speed of 3 knots. Polar Star, Healy’s counterpart, is smaller but can break 6 feet of ice at 3 knots.
Both ships are showing their age. Healy was sidelined for months after an engine-room fire in August 2020. Polar Star entered service in 1976, and repairing it has gotten harder as it gets farther beyond its 30-year service life. (The icebreaker Polar Sea, built alongside Polar Star, has been nonoperational since 2010 and is used for spare parts.)
Current and former US officials often contrast the status of US icebreakers with the dozens that Russia operates or is building and the two operated by China, the newest of which entered service in 2019. China said in 2021 it planned to build a new heavy icebreaker by the late 2020s.
“I mean, Russia has like 40 icebreakers. We have one,” Sen. Angus King, a Senate Armed Services Committee member, told CNN this month, likely referring to Polar Star, the US’s only heavy icebreaker.
Experts have pushed back against those warnings, citing the differing capabilities and roles of those icebreakers.
“The idea that there’s some kind of race with Russia that we’re losing in the Arctic and you can measure it in icebreakers is a fallacy,” Rebecca Pincus, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Polar Institute, said during an online event in March.
Russia, which has the world’s only nuclear-powered icebreakers, has the world’s longest Arctic coastline and has invested extensively there.
Many of Russia’s icebreakers are for commercial rather than military use, and not all are designed for Arctic operations, while the US Coast Guard isn’t responsible for supporting day-to-day commercial shipping, “so we’re comparing different types of activities here,” Pincus said. “That being said, yes, the US Coast Guard needs more icebreakers.”
Building the capability and capacity for an “enduring presence” in the Arctic is “absolutely a priority,” Adm. Linda Fagan, the Coast Guard commandant, told lawmakers in July.
The service is working on three new polar security cutters, which will be heavy icebreakers like Polar Star, and plans to build at least three medium icebreakers like Healy. It is doing “detailed design” for the first ship and has purchased “long-lead-time materials” for the second, but delivery of the first vessel has slipped to mid-2025, Fagan said.
“We have not built a polar security cutter since the mid-’70s, when both the Polar Sea and Polar Star were constructed,” Fagan told lawmakers. “It is a complex ship to build.”
For its near-term needs, the Coast Guard is looking into acquiring a commercial icebreaker, which it is “excited” about, Fagan said.
The US and other navies are spending more time in the Arctic, but icebreakers will likely remain the only ships capable of consistent operations there, even as the region warms.
“The thing with the Arctic is it’s really hard to tell where the ice is going to be, and it changes quite a bit throughout the year,” Boda said in an interview aboard Healy in October 2021.
Boda spoke to reporters after Healy had sailed through the Arctic on a trip around North America.
Conducting that transit in late summer meant there was less ice and Healy could “skirt” around it, but ice was still present and still challenging, Boda said. “A conventional ship could not have done what we did. That’s for sure.”