Latest US defense bill considers a Northern Sea Route transit, more icebreakers

A sprawling defense authorization bill brings a sharper focus on the Arctic.

By Melody Schreiber - December 22, 2022
The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy departs Seward, Alaska, to transit the Northwest Passage on August 25, 2021. (Photo: John Farrell / U.S. Arctic Research Commission)

A new $858 billion U.S. defense bill contains several Arctic provisions for 2023, including the acquisition of a third heavy icebreaker, and planning for a potential transit of the Northern Sea Route.

The National Defense Authorization Act is now headed to the desk of President Joe Biden to be signed into law. The items outlined in the bill would be funded by a separate omnibus funding bill, which passed the U.S. Senate on Thursday and is expected to clear the U.S. House on Thursday night.

In addition to raising the potential for transits of contested Northern waters, Arctic provisions in the new NDAA include exploring different options for acquiring new icebreakers, requiring reports on U.S. scientific research in the region, authorizing funding for Arctic and cold-weather gear, and outlining a new cost-sharing plan for expanding the port of Nome.

The U.S. Coast Guard must submit a report to Congress in the next year on the feasibility and timeline of a Northern Sea Route transit, as well as “periodic transits” of the Northwest Passage, the bill says.

While the U.S. has transited the Northwest Passage in the past, including most recently a scientific mission and joint training exercise with Canada in 2021, it has not conducted a surface mission in the Northern Sea Route in decades.

In 1965 and 1967, the Soviet Union forced U.S. icebreakers to turn around from planned transit through Vilkitsky Strait — the last such time the U.S. attempted surface operations in these waters.

The new defense authorization provided few other details on the proposed voyage. It’s not clear if the transit would be conducted under Russia’s increasingly restrictive terms or whether it would be as a freedom of navigation operation, as has been proposed previously — a prospect with “extreme sensitivities,” particularly given deteriorating geopolitics in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said Rebecca Pincus, director of the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute.

“There are core national security and economic interests in Russia’s Arctic, and that makes it a highly sensitive area to conduct some kind of operation like this. And I can assure you that it would not be a walk in the park,” Pincus said. If the U.S. were to override Russian restrictions on the route, it would be a contested transit, and it could “100 percent” escalate tensions in the region, she said.

It would be a long voyage through hazardous conditions, especially on the eastern part of the route — with unpredictable ice conditions, bad weather, and close proximity to Russian forces during a time of extremely high tensions.

While there are shipping guides to the Northern Sea Route, it’s not a route that U.S. surface vessel operators have experience navigating. Logistical questions would include how the vessel or vessels would be refueled during the lengthy trip, and what would happen in emergencies, such as a crew member needing to be airlifted for medical reasons.

“Given the risks associated with such a transit, it would be wise to not send one icebreaker by itself,” Pincus said.

A transit of the Northern Sea Route would need to be conducted in the summer. Typically, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a medium-duty icebreaker, conducts scientific missions in the Arctic each summer, while USCGC Polar Star undergoes repairs at a dry dock after an annual resupply voyage to the McMurdo research station in Antarctica each winter.

“If this was an urgent priority, and things had to change, the Healy could potentially alter its plans for next summer. But that to my mind would carry significant operational risk” without having another icebreaker as backup, Pincus said.

Russia’s parliament passed a new law in recent weeks banning freedom of navigation exercises in the Northern Sea Route, requiring advance notice of trips, and prohibiting more than one state-owned vessel at a time — which could provide the impetus for the U.S. to challenge the restrictions in what it sees as open waters.

“It’s just enormously challenging. There’s a tremendous amount of risk associated with it, and there’s a lot of questions that would have to be answered as to how to do it safely,” Pincus said.

The defense bill also authorizes $167.2 million for the construction of a third heavy icebreaker. And it requires the Coast Guard to look into the cost and timeline of purchasing two more heavy icebreakers, known as polar security cutters, rather than three medium vessels, known as Arctic security cutters, as the Coast Guard has proposed.

If the medium icebreakers are more cost-effective to build, the Coast Guard would establish a new program to oversee their design and construction, and provide quarterly updates to Congress.

The heavy icebreakers, originally promised for 2024, have already encountered significant delays. The steel has not yet been cut, which means the first vessel will likely not be operational for several years. In November, Bollinger Shipyards announced it would acquire VT Halter, the troubled shipyard under contract to build the first U.S. heavy icebreakers in several decades.

While the NDAA also authorized the $150 million acquisition of a commercially available icebreaker, a strategy proposed by the U.S. Coast Guard earlier this year, the funding was absent from the Senate’s omnibus spending bill — an unusual cut this late in the process. The purchase, if it is to move forward, would likely be moved to next year’s budget request.

Such a purchase of an existing icebreaker — likely the Aiviq, an icebreaking tug and supply vessel operated by Edison Chouest — would come with caveats, the defense bill says. It would need to be able to conduct Arctic science missions on the same level as the Healy, and the Coast Guard would be required to submit a report within two months on how much it would cost to refit the vessel and how it compares to polar security cutters.

The defense bill also requires the Coast Guard to submit a report on the potential for collaborating with shipyards in Sweden and Finland — both of which have applied for NATO membership — in the next two years.

The Government Accountability Office will also conduct a study on Coast Guard operations and infrastructure in the Arctic, and the Coast Guard must also report on its ability to deploy aircraft assets in the Arctic and to add helicopters to icebreaker patrols.

“There’s a lot of pretty tight reporting requirements” for the Coast Guard, Pincus said, which “indicates Congress wants to exercise tight scrutiny or close supervision of what’s going on.” The attention on the Arctic, especially on long-overdue icebreaker recapitalization, is welcome, she said. Congress is “asking hard questions now,” she said. “They’re clearly paying attention and galvanized to take an active interest in the program.”

But the defense department is not undergoing similar scrutiny in the region, she pointed out. While bills in previous years have required reports on defense capabilities and plans in the region, this year’s bill did not seem to require as much attention.

“That was a surprise to me,” Pincus said. “I thought there might have been more.”

But there was a stronger focus on scientific research in this bill than in recent years. The Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget must put together a detailed report on the goals and funding of all existing federal research in the Arctic, “including observation, modeling, monitoring, and prediction, and research infrastructure,” according to the bill.

Understanding how much the U.S. spends on Arctic research, and what types of research, is important for identifying gaps in a region that has cascading effects throughout the U.S. and the world.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, ‘How much does the U.S. spend on Arctic research?’” said John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. “I wish I knew.”

The new bill essentially reinforces the language of the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984, which first established the research commission, he said. “Having some knowledge of what the agencies are spending and are budgeting for Arctic research gives a lot more transparency to the enterprise. That’s exactly what Congress originally wanted, and that’s what they’re asking for again, almost 40 years later.”

It’s encouraging to see Congress focusing on scientific research in the Arctic, Farrell said.

“Clearly Congress is paying attention to these issues, and is being proactive on these issues,” he said. “I’d like to see even more science agencies involved.”

Several scientific agencies — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the United States Geological Survey — are required to make reports on the Arctic, including on the ability to care for sick and injured marine animals and to identify trends in marine mammal strandings and unusual mortality events in a rapidly changing environment, but Farrell said more reporting from more agencies would further benefit the federal government’s understanding of the region.

The bill also changes the ways costs will be shared between the federal government and the community in the expansion of the port of Nome, and it allows the Coast Guard to lease a hangar on St. Paul Island. And it provides a total of $41 million for Arctic and cold-weather clothing and equipment.

This article has been fact-checked by Arctic Today and Polar Research and Policy Initiative, with the support of the EMIF managed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

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