The Arctic Icebreaker “Gap”

Nov 19, 2015

In a ministerial mandate letter dated 13 November 2015, Canada’s Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, made it clear to the Honourable Hunter Tootoo, his Minister of Fisheries and the Coast Guard, that developing Canada’s Coast Guard fleet is a priority. To have ministerial responsibilities publicly set out, and with such clarity, is unprecedented in Canadian parliamentary history. The ministerial position clearly seems to indicate that the Canadian Coast Guard is given separate and distinct recognition. The letter specifically stated:

“… work with the Minister of Public Services and Procurement to meet the commitments that were made for new Coast Guard vessels as part of the National Shipbuilding and Procurement Strategy.”

The mandate letter sets out the policy destination Minister Tootoo is to achieve in cooperation with the Minister of Public Services and Procurement. It doesn’t set up the mechanism by which these goals are achieved, that is up to the ministers themselves, which shows the confidence Trudeau has in his chosen Cabinet ministers. This mandate letter clearly signals political leadership and support to work with the public and private sectors to close the icebreaker gap. In the past, the Canadian Coast Guard, a special operating agency of the Government of Canada, was part of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. This now appears to change, and gives clear ministerial responsibility for this important marine agency. 

Medium icebreaker CCGS Henry Larsen's home port is in St John's, Newfoundland and Labrador.

Arctic Icebreaker Capabilities
Canada is an ocean nation with 244,000 km of coastline and 9,300,000 km² of ocean space under Canadian jurisdiction. With much of these waters in Canada’s Arctic, the need for icebreakers is obvious. The United States, our best friend and ally, faces a similar problem in the Arctic.

Icebreakers have a lifespan of about half a century. That is old for any vessel, especially ones that are used hard, and are of critical importance to Arctic governance and operations. With the Arctic increasingly seen as a potential new international shipping route, the need for robust icebreaking capacity is equally evident.

When U.S. President Obama went north to Alaska this past September, he spoke about the challenges in the Arctic and America’s important leadership role as Chair of the Arctic Council. He made clear the urgent need for the United States to design and develop icebreaker capability in the Arctic. The loss of sea-ice from climate change is an oceanographic dynamic that is opening up Arctic waters to various international players. This requires Arctic coastal states to have a clear Arctic policy as well as a marine capability that includes heavy icebreakers. The Obama Administration wants to speed up the procurement of a heavy icebreaker to 2020.

CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent (left) and USCGC Healy on a joint icebreaking mission.

The lack of appropriate icebreaker capability (the “icebreaker gap”) has received a great deal of commentary following the President’s Alaskan visit. The Arctic icebreaker issue has been well known amongst the Arctic community. In the case of the United States, the U.S. Coast Guard operates icebreakers both in the Arctic and Antarctic. The United States has three Arctic icebreakers, namely medium-duty USCG Cutter Healy, a research icebreaker, and two heavy-duty icebreakers, USCGC Polar Sea and Polar Star. Only Polar Star is operational – last year she was sent to the South Pole and rescued an Australian fishing vessel Antarctic Chieftain. Polar Sea, on the other hand, has been docked in Seattle since 2010 after it suffered a major engine failure, and requires repairs estimated at $100 million. These vessels were commissioned in 1976 and 1978 respectively. Like Canada’s icebreakers, they are conventionally powered, unlike Russia’s  nuclear-powered heavy icebreakers.

Icebreakers are expensive to build, maintain and operate. With only one available, the ability to do a self-rescue will be limited, which is a real concern in a region where people can die quickly from exposure. The recent transit of the Chinese Navy’s five-ship Task Force through U.S. territorial seas off the Aleutian Islands, shows that China is taking a determined approach to Arctic passage. It is interesting that this transit (which took place within 12 nautical miles of U.S. territory) occurred during the President’s first visit to Alaska. It is safe to assume that China is making a statement that it intends to operate unrestricted in the region. China operates Xue Long, the largest non-nuclear icebreaker, and has another under construction.

USCG Icebreaker Gap
In a recent report to Congress entitled The Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress, it was noted that the United States will require six heavy-duty icebreakers in the coming years, at an estimated cost of between US$900 million and $1.1 billion each. Refurbished Polar Star is due to be retired in 2020 and the report suggests that new heavy icebreakers, even under accelerated procurement, would not come into service until 2025, leaving a two to three year icebreaker gap. 

At this time, there is very little funding for the design and development of icebreakers, and this will create serious problems for the United States trying to protect its interests in the Arctic region. The amount allocated to this project for fiscal year 2016 is $166 million, which is an 81% decrease from an earlier allocation. It remains to be seen how serious United States is about filling the icebreaker capability. In a recent analysis of the U.S. Navy’s Arctic Roadmap by the Centre for International Maritime Security, Andreas Kuersten wrote: “As the Navy puts it in the report’s final sentence: ‘The key will be to balance potential investments with other Service priorities.’” The Roadmap, however, currently shows that balance tipping away from any substantial Arctic engagement.

The Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Zukunft commented that compared to Russia and other Arctic nations, America is “not even in the game.” Those are strong words. The U.S., though, like Canada, is an Arctic nation and requires modern icebreakers for arctic operations and governance. "

Icebreakers are not a luxury, but the foundation of operations in the region. The Report to Congress identified the problem as follows: “Consequently, unless the service life of Polar Star is further extended (or unless Polar Sea is repaired and returned to service), there will be a period of perhaps two to six years during which the United States will have no operational heavy-duty polar icebreakers. The issue for Congress is whether to approve, reject, or modify the Administration’s plans for sustaining and modernizing the polar icebreaking fleet.” The U.S. Navy has no ice-strengthened vessels that can operate in the region.

Canada’s Icebreaker Gap
Canada’s icebreaker gap is arguably more pressing, and affects the Canadian economy in a major way. Although they do seasonal work in the Arctic, Canada’s Coast Guard icebreakers were designed for breaking ice in southern waters – on the Great Lakes and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence – to keep Great Lakes and Seaway commerce to the Port of Montréal open as long as possible. Our largest and oldest, CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, now 49 years of age, has been worked hard.

Canada’s icebreaker problems are age- and capability-related. While construction of CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, a new Polar Class icebreaker, was announced with great fanfare by Prime Minister Harper, it is unlikely under the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) that this vessel will be operational before 2022, and even that date is optimistic. The U.S. estimates it will take 10 years for its shipyards to build an Arctic icebreaker. 

On 5 September 2015, USCGC Healy became the first unaccompanied U.S. surface vessel to reach the North Pole.

The Shipping Federation of Canada (the association that has been representing owners, operators and agents of ships involved in Canada’s world trade for over 100 years) recently released a policy statement that called on the government to ensure there is sufficient icebreaking capability within the Great Lakes System to allow for commerce to take place. This is a shipping infrastructure problem that affects Canada’s economy, and it also impacts Arctic operations and capability. The Federation stated that “The past two years have demonstrated the limits of CCG’s icebreaking fleet as it dealt with icebreaking in the Arctic, the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River and Eastern Canada. Already operating with a limited and aging number of assets over a very large geographical area, the conditions demonstrated the breaking point for the system and the need for more icebreakers as soon as possible to meet adequate levels of service and safety.”

Under the current NSPS, Canada’s focus for its new Polar icebreaker has been to build a single, large, conventionally-powered icebreaker that would not operate during the winter months in the Canadian Arctic. 

The Shipping Federation proposes to consider alternative service delivery either through chartering and/or purchasing from other nations, and more importantly, to modify the existing National Shipbuilding plan to build smaller, but more numerous icebreaker vessels. The UK has announced construction of a new polar research ship, at a cost of 200 million pounds, which will come into service in 2019.

Unlike those operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, Canadian icebreakers are not restricted to Arctic operations – they are an integral part of Canada’s shipping infrastructure. These staunch vessels see double duty on a year-round basis, which puts greater strain on these vessels, especially as they age.

With heavy pack ice last spring in the Cabot Strait, Canada’s largest icebreaker, CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent was unable to free Marine Atlantic ferry M/V Blue Puttees from the drift ice. Although we do not think of the waters around Cape Breton and Newfoundland as Arctic waters, these ice covered waters can be every bit as challenging.

March 2007: USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB 11) sits on the ice after a day-long ice breaking operation around McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.  She had been participating in Operation Deep Freeze by keeping a clear and navigable channel for supply ships to get goods, supplies, and equipment to the research personnel working at McMurdo Station.

Canadian Coast Guard Ships Louis S. St-Laurent and Terry Fox both transited to the North Pole both in 2014 and 2015 to perform research in support of Canada’s claim to the North Pole seabed as part of our “extended” continental shelf. Terry Fox was privately built by a Gulf Canada subsidiary in 1983 as an ice-breaking offshore supply vessel for use in the Beaufort Sea, and was world leading technology when it was designed and built in Canada. During the days of Beaufort Sea exploration (1970-80s) Canada led the way in developing icebreaker technology. With contracts dwindling, much of that technical expertise migrated to Finland to continue icebreaker design and development. 

Icebreakers = Options 
It is important to remember that icebreakers give Canada policy options in the Arctic. The Arctic is the world’s last frontier and is becoming a potential geo-political flashpoint as issues arise concerning access for international commercial shipping and exploitation, and harvesting of natural resources. Canada recently sought to increase its claim to continental shelf resources beyond 200 nautical miles under article 76 of the Law of the Sea Convention. This past summer, on orders from then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, scientists conducted further research in support of preparing the claim for the seabed to the North Pole. Accordingly, CCGS Terry Fox and Louis S. St-Laurent were deployed to conduct further geophysical research and data collection. What this example shows, is that Canada’s capability to make policy choices is limited by its actual existing maritime capability. This embraces vessels, maritime air assets, space sensors (our space policy is also part of our ocean policy), unmanned systems, and the training of skilled and specialized personnel. 

The cripplingly long lead time for building this ocean infrastructure, which Canada requires both domestically and internationally, is a cause for grave concern within the maritime security community.

The light icebreaker and buoy tender CCGS Edward Cornwallis steams into port in Sydney, Nova Scotia. 

Moving Forward Together
Now is the time for a reboot of Canadian and American icebreaker capability, particularly in light of rapid environmental changes in the Arctic. We share common waters with the United States, and our interests are very much aligned in the Arctic with our best friend and ally. There is an opportunity for Canada and the United States to work together to build a class of polar icebreakers based on the design of CCGS John G. Diefenbaker. This would alleviate the icebreaker gap, and give both Canada and the United States much-needed capability in the Arctic. This is an opportunity for Canada to examine its National Shipbuilding and Procurement Strategy, and consider increasing its marine vessel opportunities through a variety of means and comments made by the Shipping Federation of Canada. At the very least, it is an excellent starting point for this discussion.

This could be the perfect opportunity to work with the United States – an opportunity for our two countries to work together towards the common good and protect the Arctic environment – which has spinoff benefits on a number of fronts. Such a vision will require leadership. Canada’s new Minister of Fisheries, whose home is in the Arctic, is well aware of the importance and critical need for closing the icebreaker gap. Is Canada’s government up to the challenge? We have the opportunity to get this right and showcase Canadian technology to once again reclaim our position as an international Arctic leader. This is especially important as Russia moves to increase its capability in the Arctic Ocean Basin. Closing the icebreaker gap is an investment in Canada’s future, and is good for both domestic and international reasons.  

K. Joseph Spears, Principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group, has a long-standing interest in Canada’s Arctic and marine capabilities. He has participated in many policy dialogues in the development of marine practices for the government of Canada. He assisted in the strategic environmental assessment of Canada’s polar icebreaker under contract to the Canadian Coast Guard via Nordstrat Consulting. Joe can be reached at 

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