Right now the US possesses a single icebreaker built in 1976, which is a sorry sight indeed, and it doesn't get much better from there
Washington will send a Navy warship to sail through the Arctic in a demonstration of its growing ambitions in the far North, the US Navy secretary said. But will it be enough to challenge Russia?
The US has long since set its sights upon the Arctic, which it openly sees as a potential new arena for a geopolitical standoff. As the planet's changing climate gradually turns ice-bound wastes into passable waterways, Washington is clearly intending to get its piece of the economic action in a region that might well become a major sea trade lane one day.
In what looks like a statement of claim, the US will send a Navy warship to the Arctic waters in yet another freedom of navigation operation, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer told the Wall Street Journal. The US Navy already conducted similar missions in the South China Sea to challenge Beijing's territorial claims there. So far, that has led to nothing but heightened tensions between the US and China but Washington is apparently eager to use the same approach in another region.
Here, it is all about challenging the adversaries once again, as the US sees Russia and China as its major competitors in the region. Washington's plans are not just limited to the freedom of navigation mission but also involve deploying troops to the abandoned base of Adak.
Located at the end of the Aleutian Islands not far from the Russian border, this base was used between 1942 and 1997. Now, the US plans to send some surface ships and a P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft there, according to Spencer. "The concept is, yes, go up there," the Navy secretary said, speaking about the US plans for new Arctic operations. "We're developing them as we speak," he said.
However, his statements might be more bold claim than concrete plan of action. The Navy mission is still "in the early stages" and it has not yet been decided what ship will be used for it and which ports it would visit. The old Adak base also will not be re-activated just yet.
The decommissioned naval station was taken over by the private Aleut Corporation in 2003, which was founded to settle the Alaska natives' claims against the federal government. The Navy is currently in talks with the company about the base's fate, according to Spencer. However, the Aleut Corporation provided no comment on the matter.
The US aim of matching Russia's influence in the Arctic region might, in fact, be hard to achieve. Russia wields a massive icebreaker fleet, consisting of five nuclear-powered and about 30 diesel icebreakers. Three new nuclear-powered icebreakers, which are set to become "the largest and the most powerful" in the world, are expected to join Russia's fleet in the coming years.
Apart from that, Russia is also building new, ice-rated Arctic multipurpose patrol ships. The first of these is expected to be handed over to the Russian Navy in 2020. China, another US rival that has also set its sights on the Arctic recently, has already built its first domestically produced icebreaker.
Meanwhile, Washington still possesses only one heavy icebreaker. However, its own crew members call the ship, commissioned in 1976, a "rust bucket." Even though it was the former President Barack Obama who vowed to close the "icebreaker gap" with Russia as early as in 2015, the situation has not really changed since then.
All that is not mentioning Russia's unique military installations in the Arctic, which include radar arrays and autonomous, permanent military bases. Of particular interest is Russia's northernmost military base, called Arctic Shamrock, which allows up to 150 people to live and work for as long as 18 months without any external support in an area located 80 degrees of latitude north of the Equator. A similar base, called Severny Klever (Northern Clover), is located on the 75th parallel north on Kotelny Island, in the New Siberian Islands archipelago.
"Now, the US lacks the resources to take hold in the Arctic," Vladimir Bruter, a specialist at the International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies, told RT, adding that Washington might, in fact, not be vying for dominance in the Arctic but instead seeking to spoil the game for its adversaries.
The US is apparently concerned that Russia might start full-scale commercial use of its Northern Sea Route, which it sees as detrimental to American economic interests. The US would try to show that this shipping lane is "not safe," Bruter warned. Washington "constantly seeks to provoke Russia, to make it overreact. Any response [to its own actions] would be perceived as … a threat" and later used to shape the US' own policy, the expert said.
Besides, the Northern Sea Route – the one where the US apparently plans to send its navy ship – goes along the Russian shores and through internationally recognized Russian territorial waters, giving it the authority to set rules for passing ships. Russia is also the only state technically capable of rendering assistance to any ships passing through that region in case of any emergency, so it might be quite difficult for the US to maintain "freedom of navigation" there without Russian help.
Meanwhile, Russia has updated its navigation rules for other nations' warships attempting to sail along the Northern Sea Route. Starting from 2019, such passage would require prior notification sent to the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, so the US might yet alter its plans.