Icebreakers: An Overview

By Robert Hammitt

As the Arctic ice cap retreats further north every summer, the Arctic Ocean becomes an ever more enticing area for a variety of maritime activity: shipping to oil drilling to fishing to tourism. Because the sea ice is seasonal, unpredictable, and often still present even where the ice cap itself has broken up, icebreakers are a necessary investment for any country with an Arctic presence. Discussion of icebreakers has unfortunately become a short-hand measure of a country’s commitment to the region, rather than examined as an instrument of national Arctic policy itself.

On the one hand, alarmists often resort to warning about a critical strategic “icebreaker gap,” pointing to Russia’s 40 or so icebreakers compared to a mere handful in the West, and intimating that this gives Russia a decisive advantage in some kind of head-to-head competition. Even when commentators recognise the foolishness of this approach (since Russia has the longest Arctic coastline, the largest Arctic population, and a national policy which relies on the frozen ocean more than any other country – its need for large numbers of icebreakers clear), there is confusion about the purpose of icebreakers. This is understandable; after all, given the number of uses for an icebreaker, different priorities can take forefront. This can be misleading, however, as one country’s interests and policy for its icebreaker fleet can be quite different from another’s. This issue can be critical in the debates in the US and Canada in particular as they each look to replace their aging fleet.

The clearest dividing line in the world’s icebreaker fleet is between commercial icebreakers, which are primarily involved in economic activity, and national-asset icebreakers, which generally support their owning government’s non-economic policy, whether that be national scientific research, defence and sovereignty, or safety and environmental protection. Although individual icebreakers can serve either purpose, perhaps with some refitting (after all, in all cases, the core mission – to break ice – is the same), national policy for icebreaker fleets usually leans toward one extreme or another.

Commercial Icebreakers

Whether owned and operated by national governments, state-owned enterprises, or in private hands, some icebreakers and fleets are primarily focused on commercial operations. Icebreakers have engaged in many types of commercial activities:

  • escorting and supporting cargo vessels engaged in Arctic shipping;
  • protecting oil and gas operations from ice;
  • keeping ports and their approaches open to allow trade to flow.

In some sub-arctic waters, such as the Baltic Sea, seasonal commercial icebreaking is critical to enable trade through the winter. In addition, the Soviet and Russian governments have always relied on the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s Arctic coast to bring natural resources out of Siberia and the far north and to bring goods into those communities.

In more recent years, Russia has focused on expanding the Northern Sea Route. This expansion is linked to increased mining and energy extraction, especially on the Yamal Peninsula. Russia has also promoted the Arctic route as an alternate global shipping route, offering a considerably shorter voyage between northern Europe and East Asia than the traditional Suez Canal route. However, to date, the particular challenges and risks of this route have prevented its rapid growth.

Icebreakers are also used to support oil- and natural gas-drilling and exploration. During its operations off the North Slope of Alaska, Shell leased the privately-owned Aiviq and the MSV Fennica owned by Finland’s Arctia Offshore. In addition to protecting the exploration fleet from unexpected ice conditions, icebreakers are necessary to provide access to year-round production platforms, such as the Goliat platform and Prirazlomnaya platform in Norwegian and Russian waters respectively. Finally, icebreakers are an important point of oil-spill response. Fennica was an important part of Shell’s Alaska operations because it carried a capping stack, necessary to close a gushing well in the event of a blowout. Because US regulations for Arctic drilling require that operators have the capacity to deal with a blowout before the end of the season, a late-season disaster would force response operations to continue even as winter ice returns.

Similarly, this fall’s cruise through North America’s Northwest Passage by the cruise ship Crystal Serenity hired the RRS Ernest Shackleton, operated by the British Antarctic Society, to escort it through the Canadian Archipelago (the Shackleton is an ice-strengthened ship for polar operations, rather than a true icebreaker). As with Shell’s icebreaker fleet, the Shackleton is intended to provide a safety margin if severe ice conditions develop, rather than because Crystal Cruises expects to travel through pack ice conditions.

As these examples demonstrate, commercial icebreaking operations are driven by the economic needs of shipping companies and other maritime operators. This sets an upper limit on the necessary upper icebreaking capacity, barring emergency situations, since commercial operators are only willing to face a certain degree of risk before their operations become uneconomical. In addition, the world fleet of ice-strengthened commercial ships, capable of safely travelling in heavier ice conditions, is relatively small. Although more Polar-class ships will be built, many operators, such as Russia’s Norilsk Nickel, are looking toward cargo ships with their own icebreaking capacity, able to operate separately from an icebreaker-supported convoy. This tendency will not entirely obviate the need for commercial icebreakers, but is a sign that icebreaker-led convoys shouldn’t be taken for granted as the form of future Arctic shipping.

National Asset Icebreakers

Icebreakers also provide a public good, like most government-provided infrastructure, which goes beyond merely facilitating particular commercial interests. Most nations’ icebreaker policies focus on this purpose – icebreaker as national asset, and this is often indicated by which authority is responsible for and operates icebreakers: either the coast guard or equivalent maritime safety institution (as in the US and Canada), or by national scientific institutions (as in the United Kingdom, China, and Australia).

Icebreakers, of course, are vital scientific tools, enabling research in the high north as well as Antarctic waters. Research done aboard icebreakers has furthered our collective knowledge of climate science, hydrology, marine biology, astronomy, and many other fields. Polar research also has immediate value for polar operations, thanks to studies of the ice cap, ocean currents, and depth soundings. Icebreakers give scientists access to polar waters, but also allow equipment and supplies to reach on-shore research stations, whether in the high north or Antarctica. Research also supports more narrow national interest such as the bathymetric work required for countries to claim an extended continental shelf under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The cost of building an icebreaker would be challenging for individual research institutions to finance, so in this use, an icebreaker is a classic example of a public good, enabling research that would be impossible without government support.

In ice-covered waters, icebreakers provide a vital role in providing response capacity for emergencies and disasters. Icebreakers give government maritime safety agencies an enhanced capacity to reach distressed vessels to rescue ships and sailors, and also to respond to environmental disasters such as oil spills. Additionally, icebreakers provide emergency access to coastal communities in the far north, such as when the USCGC Healy escorted a fuel tanker to Nome, Alaska, in 2012, in response to an emergency fuel shortage.

Finally, in the United States, where the US Coast Guard is both a naval and law enforcement service, icebreakers provide vital support to these missions. In this context, they carry out the same inspection, law enforcement, and sovereignty patrols as other cutters, but their unique capabilities allow them to operate in polar waters. Although threats such as smuggling or piracy seem far-fetched in the high north, illegal fishing is a serious concern in Antarctic waters, and likely to become so in the Arctic Ocean as well. US icebreakers also support military objectives, conducting scientific research to benefit the US Navy, especially the submarine fleet, and enabling access to military facilities such as the air base in Thule, Greenland.

Size Matters

All icebreakers can break ice. However, design characteristics such as the height of the hull above the surface (freeboard), degree of reinforcement of the hull, weight of the ship, and especially the capacity of the engines make a big difference in how much ice can be broken. In addition to the thickness of the ice, older (multiyear) ice is much denser and harder to break than newer first-year ice.

Icebreakers are classified as heavy or light, depending on their capacity. As a general guideline, light icebreakers have an engine capacity between 10 thousand and 45 thousand horsepower (hp). Smaller icebreakers exist, but are mostly used for in-port operations rather than on the open sea. Many light icebreakers operate in Arctic and Antarctic waters, while others are designed for sub-arctic conditions, such as the Baltic Sea or Great Lakes.

Icebreakers with capacity greater than 45 thousand hp are considered heavy. Only Russia and the US operate icebreakers this powerful. Russia’s fleet of six nuclear icebreakers (plus the Arktika, which was launched in June 2016, but has not yet entered service) can muster approximately 60k hp; the new Arktika is rated up to 80k. The US’s diesel-powered heavy icebreakers, the two Polar-class ships, are rated at 75k hp. However, in actual operation, the conventional icebreakers likely cap out at 60k hp, while the nuclear fleet may reach 70k hp.

While this categorisation appears simple enough, it obscures the basic idea that an icebreaker needs to be powerful enough for its designed purpose. Above a certain safety margin, extra capacity is unnecessary for an icebreaker’s operation. According to experts on US Coast Guard icebreaking operations, the US fleet rarely exceeds engine loads of 18k hp for standard operations in ice, only using the excess capacity when the icebreaker’s mission required it to break through thicker or older ice, when it might need to go well beyond 45k hp. Because of this, smaller icebreakers which aren’t intended to face particularly demanding circumstances or whose missions allow them to avoid especially hazardous conditions, like icebreakers which support shipping or most scientific research, simply don’t need the capacity of the United States’ Polar-class or Russia’s Arktika-class ships.

United States’ Icebreaker Need

There is an ongoing debate in the United States about replacing the Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet, especially the heavy icebreakers. The USCGC Polar Star and Polar Sea are 40 years old, and in desperate need of replacement. Because of age and the cost of the required full refit, the Polar Sea has been taken out of commission and cannibalised for parts to keep the Polar Star operational. The USCGC Healy is 20 years newer and is expected to remain in service for years, but within a few years, without a major and expensive refit, the Polar Sea will no longer be able to carry out its mission.

Given the current budget climate in the United States, funding a new heavy icebreaker is a challenge. The estimated cost, $1 billion, is approximately the Coast Guard’s entire annual budget for ship construction and repair, which is already stretched thin by the needs of the Coast Guard’s cutter fleet. Senator Lisa Murkowski, the senior senator from Alaska, attempted to earmark $1 billion from the Navy’s budget, which was approved by the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate, but this would still have to be approved by Congress generally. The Navy, in particular, is unlikely to support this, hoping to avoid establishing a precedent of paying for the Coast Guard’s ships; the late Senator Ted Stevens used a similar manoeuvre to fund the Polar-class ships in the 1970s.

The crux of the problem is that no single agency in the US government can justify paying for the necessary icebreaker because the US icebreakers support many agencies’ activities. The Navy argues it can’t bear the entire cost of an icebreaker which would also be used by the Coast Guard and the National Science Foundation (NSF); each other agency has similar concerns. Until Congress can pass a defence appropriations bill which earmarks specific funds for an icebreaker, it is unlikely to be built.

Even if the US is able to fund a new heavy icebreaker, that is unlikely to be enough to carry out its required missions. A 2010 report estimated that the Coast Guard would need, at a minimum, three heavy and three light icebreakers to carry out its statutory missions. Particularly, US icebreakers operate in the Antarctic as well as the Arctic, in support of its scientific mission there and to carry out inspections for the Department of State supporting the Antarctic Treaty System. Since the highest demand for icebreakers is in spring and fall in the north, and in summer (south), icebreakers that operate at both poles in a single year have to lose months in transit. In addition, having only a single, or even two heavy icebreakers don’t leave time for long stays in port for refits, which would extend the ship’s usable life.

Although there have been proposals for acquiring an icebreaker at a discount, by leasing either an existing privately-owned icebreaker such as the Aiviq, or from a foreign country, or saving on cost by building an icebreaker in a foreign country, these proposals face either a statutory, practical, or image problem.

The United States has a long-standing policy of only building warships in the United States, both as a matter of national security to protect sensitive technology, and as a subsidy to the US shipbuilding industry, which faces stiff competition from foreign yards. Creating an exception to build a new icebreaker abroad would require congressional, or at the very least executive action, and would at a minimum be heavily opposed by Congress-members whose districts would lose out on the business.

Leasing an existing icebreaker is problematic since it is unclear whether any of the proposed vessels can carry out all the required missions of a heavy icebreaker. In particular, the Coast Guard annually breaks a path through the Ross Ice Shelf to McMurdo Station on Antarctica in order to supply US research operations in Antarctica. In addition, a heavy icebreaker maximises the Coast Guard’s ability to respond to an emergency in any season, such as a fellow icebreaker getting stuck in thicker ice than it can break. In 2014, Russia’s research icebreaker Akedemik Shokalskiy became trapped in ice off Antarctica. China’s Xue Long responded, but also became trapped, so the Polar Star was dispatched. Fortunately, conditions changed enough that both icebreakers were able to free themselves before the heavier ship arrived, but the incident demonstrated the value of having a heavy icebreaker available.

An even more concerning scenario is the potential need to rescue a Navy submarine operating under the Arctic icepack. If a submarine were to run into trouble, a heavy icebreaker could provide assistance from the surface. Without a US-operated heavy icebreaker to rely on, the Navy would be limited in its ability to deliver aid to a submarine in distress.

Finally, because a Coast Guard icebreaker is an instrument of national policy used for law enforcement and to show the flag in support of US sovereignty, leasing a private or foreign icebreaker is at the very least a troublesome image. Leasing an icebreaker, while technically feasible, would be similar to the Navy leasing a submarine or aircraft carrier.

United States’ Commercial Icebreaking

Absent from this discussion of the US Coast Guard’s icebreaker needs is support of commercial operations. Given the demands on the existing and anticipated icebreaking fleet and the lack of funding for enough ships adequate to carry out those missions, escorting the currently limited number of commercial operations in the Arctic doesn’t make sense as a Coast Guard mission. As it does elsewhere, the Coast Guard provides assistance in emergencies, whether at sea or opening a channel to a port.

However, despite visions of fleets of ships transiting or travelling the Northwest Passage or Northern Sea Route, the economics of Arctic shipping currently can’t support any significant operations. A clear litmus test of whether Arctic shipping is feasible is whether the industry can bear the cost of icebreaking, whether by operating private icebreakers or ships with independent ice-breaking capability. Additionally, the icebreakers necessary for the Coast Guard’s missions are overkill for supporting commercial operations, and smaller, purpose-built ships would be a more economical asset. Government icebreakers are necessary for their own purposes, rather than serving as commercial icebreakers.

There is no statutory requirement in the United States that the Coast Guard supply all icebreaking services, and in ports where ice is a concern, privately operated vessels work to keep the port clear. If Arctic shipping through the Northwest Passage is truly to become a viable commercial endeavour, the shipping industry will be able to bear the cost of private icebreaking, whether that comes from leasing or building an icebreaker, or by using ships that can operate independently of icebreaker-led convoys. Beyond providing required safety and assistance in emergencies, establishing shipping channels where necessary, and carrying out its other missions, there is no reason to believe that subsidising private industry is a mission of the US Coast Guard or its icebreakers. But the Coast Guard will still need a new fleet of icebreakers to cope with anticipated growth of Arctic shipping, as well as the Coast Guard’s other existing icebreaking requirements.


Robert Hammitt is Unit Lead of PRPI’s Maritime Environment Unit. He has a master’s degree in international relations and economics from Johns Hopkins University, with a concentration in Europe-Eurasian studies, especially Russian-Western relations in the Arctic. Rob has worked for years on polar and maritime issues, particularly with the Center for Strategic & International Studies’ Arctic Program and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Polar Initiative, both in Washington, DC. Before pursuing graduate education, Rob worked as a research analyst for an environmental-economic consulting firm in Boston, where he examined the impact of environmental regulation on regional employment, and the challenges climate change poses for port, irrigation, and hydropower infrastructure.
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