When it comes to Arctic policy, the White House is delivering a series of self-inflicted wounds. Though it keeps cranking out more and more policy statements, the U.S. has invested little in addressing the emerging challenges of competition in the region. The Arctic, for example, can potentially be tapped to develop vast oil reserves.
Sadly, the fact is the United States is poorly prepared to protect its interests. The Administration’s answer to the problem largely amounts to signing the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea—a treaty that has a boatload of problems.
Even more depressing, the White House has shown no interest in ensuring the U.S. can effectively operate in the Arctic. Rear Admiral Jeffrey M. Garrett (retired) recently wrote:
The nation’s multi-mission polar icebreaker fleet is being downsized by a third with the imminent decommissioning of USCGC Polar Sea. This will leave only the Polar Star, 35 years old and half-way through an expensive 2 ½-year refit, and the 11-year old Healy. Unanticipated engine problems in Polar Sea forced the cancellation of two Arctic deployments in late 2010 and early 2011, the result of attempting to keep complex 1960s-era technology in use beyond its reasonable service life.
Garrett laments, however, that “a pair of replacement icebreakers, replacing the unsupportable and expensive to operate Polar Star and Polar Sea would catapult the U.S. from a paper Arctic power to one with real capabilities, across the spectrum of national power. New, efficient, environmentally-compliant icebreakers would give the U.S. positive control of its Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea frontier—as well as the ability to sustain its Antarctic presence credibly.”
One potential way to address this challenge is to follow the lead of other nations and develop a commercial icebreaker force. A Heritage proposal argues that “[t]he U.S. can jump-start its fleet by privatizing ice-breaker operations and using ships as platforms for national security and federal scientific activities. This initiative would save federal dollars by eliminating old, inadequate, and expensive-to-operate assets while greatly expanding U.S. capacity to operate in the Arctic.”