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Saturday, July 1, 2017

US Coast Guard admiral wants new icebreakers to have missiles

Admiral Paul Zukunft, Commander of the U.S. Coast Guard, told a U.S. House sub-committee that the U.S. may need icebreakers with surface-to-air missiles to defend U.S. sovereign resources from Russia and China.

Zukunft told U.S. legislators: “I have to look differently at what an icebreaker does. We need to reserve space, weight and power if we need to strap on an (anti-ship cruise) missile package on it." Some analysts think that the Arctic challenge from Moscow and Beijing are being overblown especially from China. However, the U.S. has ignored the strategic and legal implications of climate change and has been slow to use military branches to protect its Arctic assets. However, it should be noted that countries such as Russia and even Canada have longer Arctic coastlines than the U.S. arctic coast of Alaska. In 2013, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic probably contains about 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and an even greater percent of its natural gas. Just recently the Russian oil giant Rosneft announced that it had discovered a large oil deposit off the Russian arctic shelf.
The U.S. Coast Guard has just two functional icebreakers that can be used for Arctic service. One of them is 40 years old and ready to be scrapped. However, China is hardly a huge competitor as it has at present only one civilian icebreaker the Snow Dragon built in Ukraine. It is building one more that it hopes will begin service by 2019. The countries that have many icebreakers do so because they have extensive Arctic coastlines. Russia has 40 icebreakers and is building 11 more. As Zukunft points out two of them will be corvettes that will carry cruise missiles and should be ready by 2020. Canada is not mentioned in any of the articles about the arming of U.S. ice breakers that I read but it has 15 icebreakers with two heavy icebreakers, four medium icebreakers, nine multi-purpose vessels and two hovercraft. However, as with Russia, we have a huge arctic coastline.
Rockford Weitz, a noted Arctic specialist and a director of the Maritime Studies Program at Fletcher School of Tufts University, said that U.S. navy strength in the area can handle threats from rival nations in the region. Weitz said: "U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers don’t need anti-ship cruise missile capabilities at this stage. And adding such capabilities could make fulfilling the core mission set of U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers more challenging.” Weitz notes that the U.S. Coast Guard has historically enjoyed constructive relationships with the coast guards of other countries including that of Russia partly because the mission of the U.S. Coast Guard has been search and rescue, environmental protection, and fisheries regulation. The U.S. has also a powerful submarine presence in the arctic. Weitz notes that the subs carry anti-ship cruise missiles to counter any Russian threat. Weitz claims that Chinese icebreakers are focused on scientific exploration in the arctic. There is no indication at present that they have any intention of equipping their icebreakers with advanced weaponry.
China is of course interested in oil and gas in the Arctic and already the Chinese state oil company CNOOC has agreements with Iceland's Eykon Energy and the Norwegian company Petoro. There are no published reports of Chinese mobile oil rigs drilling for oil on the U.S. arctic shelf as Zukunft claims could happen. If it were to happen it would be perfectly legal and the U.S. has only itself to blame for this. The U.S. has not recognized the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) a move that would allow the US to extend its Exclusive Economic Zone to its Arctic continental shelf. See this article on U.S. not ratifying the treaty.
Arming U.S. icebreakers with missiles might not only make them less efficient at carrying out their basic purpose of breaking ice but might increase tensions in the arctic and strain relations with other nations unnecessarily. Yet the desire to put America First and ensure Arctic resources are developed for the interest of U.S. companies will no doubt have considerable resonance among U.S. politicians and might persuade them that missiles on icebreakers would be a good idea to ensure the protection of U.S. interests. Expert advice to the contrary, may be ignored.


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