Icebreaker Envy

Ryan Erickson has published the Arctic SAR boundaries on the Naval Institute Blog. Looking at this chart got me thinking about ice capable ships. That of course lead to looking for similar information on Antarctica, so this is going to be a survey of What nations are interested in the Polar regions? and What do their ice capable fleets look like?

In the Arctic we see territorial sea and EEZ claims by six countries: the US, Russia, Canada, Denmark (reflecting their administration of Greenland), Norway, and Iceland.


Since 1961, claims on the Antarctic have been held in abeyance because of the Antarctic Treaty System, but the claims are still on the table and may be reasserted in the future. Seven countries have made territorial claims. The US and Russia have made no claims, but have reserved the right to do so prior to entering into the treaty. While some territory has not been claimed, there are also overlapping claims, and there is the potential that there will be additional claimants in the future.

In total, there are twelve countries with claims in the Arctic and Antarctic: Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Denmark, France, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, the UK, and the US.

In addition, seven other countries maintain stations in Antarctic: China, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Africa, and the Ukraine.

Three countries have claims or potential claims in both the Arctic and the Antarctic: the US, Russia, an Norway.

Turning to the icebreakers. There is a pretty good listing of the World’s icebreakers here. In the notes below I will refer to “large icebreakers;” here that will mean over 10,000 tons.

Of the twelve countries with claims or potential claims, ten have icebreakers. Only four of the twelve countries have large icebreakers, Argentina, Canada, Russia, and the US. Not surprisingly Russia has by far the largest fleet with over 20 icebreakers of which at least 9 are “large” and most of these are nuclear powered. Of the rest, only the US has more than one large icebreaker, and as we know, only one of those is operational in the short run. Canada has about 19 icebreakers, but of these, only six of these are rated PC5 (Year-round operation in medium first-year ice which may include old ice inclusions) or better. Only one of these is a large icebreaker.

Perhaps surprisingly China, Germany, and Japan also each have one large icebreakers. Reportedly, China is planning a second (sorry, I don’t have a reference).

Relatively few of the icebreakers have any weapons. Only the six ships of the 3,400 ton, 229 foot, Russian Ivan Susanin Class and Norway’s 6,375 ton, 340 foot Svalbard are obviously armed. Canada is planning to build six to eight armed vessels similar to the Svalbard. Very few icebreakers are considered part of their respective Navy or Coast Guard. This may be changing, but for now, unlike the USCG the Canadian Coast Guard has no military or law enforcement responsibility so their vessels are not armed. By contrast there are a number of ice strengthened patrol vessels belonging to the Danish Navy (here and here), Icelandic Coast Guard, New Zealand Navy, and Norwegian Coast Guard that are armed, but they not considered icebreakers. (During the Falklands war, the Argentinian Navy used their icebreaker as a hospital ship.)

A final observation. Looking at the geography, there are several ways to go between the Arctic and the Atlantic, but there is only one way to go between the Arctic and the Pacific. Regardless of the route they take, traffic using the Arctic as a route between the Atlantic and Pacific will all pass the less than 45 mile wide strait between Alaska and Siberia with Big and Little Diomede  in the middle. Traffic to or from Asia would likely transit the area south of the strait very near the Russia/US SAR boundary and any other traffic including to/from Australia, New Zealand, or the Americas would transit in the US SAR sector, so the US is likely to get a disproportionate share of the traffic through its sector.

The numbers for the Coast Guard’s projected ice capable vessel requirement that I have heard, 6 vessels including three heavy icebreakers and three other ice capable vessels (smaller icebreakers or simply ice strengthened?) sounds about right. That suggest at least one heavy icebreaker and one of the smaller ships on task at all times or alternately at least two of each seasonally. That reflecting anticipated additional traffic in the Arctic, anticipated exploitation of the Arctic Alaska EEZ and continental shelf, and the largest presence of any nation in Antarctica.

6 thoughts on “Icebreaker Envy

  1. Hi there Chuck,
    I must say that photograph of the new SAR Boundaries For The Arctic has really making its rounds on the internet these days after I had sent it to my dearest and close friend Ryan Erickson in which he has featured it in his blogs. I was so very humbled that what he wrote about me inwhich he refered to me in his blogs “Well my good friend and SAR guru from Canada, Ken White, led me to the recently published images and associated documentation (AGREEMENT ON COOPERATION ON AERONAUTICAL AND MARITIME SEARCH AND RESCUE IN THE ARCTIC; pdf) showing and discussing the newly agreed upon search and rescue boundaries covering the Arctic” I have to give you a heads up about the new SAR Boundaries which Canada is hosting this:

    On 12 May 2011, in Nuuk, Greenland, senior delegations from the eight Arctic Council states signed the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic. This agreement highlighted the need for a cooperative and coordinated international search and rescue response from arctic nations in the event of SAR requirements in the challenging Arctic environment.

    To honour that agreement, from 5-6 October 2011,The Canadian Armed Forces Canada Command will host the first Arctic SAR Table Top Exercise Planning Conference in Whitehorse, Yukon Territories. This two day conference will include delegations from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, who will showcase their nations SAR capabilities and provide a forum for delegates to discuss the strategic and operational level aspects of the Agreement.

    • Thank you Ken both for the new information and for the Diagram. A picture does work so much better. I even played with it a bit on Google Earth before writing the post. Good luck on you table top, I’m sure it will go well. Canadians were always the best hosts.

      • Dear Chuck,
        This week the Navy Times had a article called the “CG must balance cuts with Arctic mission” and US Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp said in the article “Papp: Arctic resources needed
        Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp and other service leaders have pushed in recent years for Congress to provide resources so the service can prepare for bigger Arctic missions.

        Papp told Navy Times in September that the Coast Guard “currently has zero resources to apply in the Arctic on a full-time basis.”

        “We don’t have a distress response system up there, and it’s very hard to get word down to south Alaska in terms of providing responses for just even simple search and rescue,” Papp said. “And even if we do get the word, the closest air station is in Kodiak. That’s, at a minimum, about a 10-hour transit.”

        Papp told Navy Times that until now, the 17th District — which oversees Coast Guard operations in Alaska — has governed the service’s response to diminishing ice and its effect on operations. But a national-level team of experts, he said, has been put together to determine how the Coast Guard will advocate for resources and put them in Alaska.

        “We don’t have any command and control, or anybody permanently up [on Alaska’s northern slope],” Papp said. “We don’t even have a hangar where we could put a couple of helicopters or an aircraft.

        “There has to be some level of minimal Coast Guard resources up there to be able to sustain a forward operating base.”
        I commented about this “would like to bring this to the attention of everyone that on May 12 2011 the United States signed agreement with Canada and other nations that are bounded by the Arctic a new search and rescue agreement for the Arctic. The 17th Coast Guard District would be the acting as the Search Mission Co ordinator (the RCC Juneau) for this new area. And I would be thinking that they would needing two more Icebreakers and at least three more long range C-130 J Hercules aircraft, in which one of them could be stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak and the other two could be statoned at a new base near Barrow, Alaska” As a former SAR controller do you agree with my comment?

  2. Ken, Thanks for looking in. I’ve been expecting to see something about a decision on Canada’s ship building program, but nothing so far?

    I was an RCC controller forty years ago and it was in the Gulf of Mexico, but having said that, we definitely need more accessibility in the Arctic. Being able to keep an icebreaker there during the summer seems the first priority because it will bring with it helicopter(s), boats, medical facilities, and command and control. Additional ice capable ships would flesh out the ability to respond.

    Helos from ships might meet the rotary wing requirements which are probably the most urgent. For the fixed wing, I would think the immediate need is for an aviation support facility of some sort to be identified or constructed that can support C-130s at least on a temporary basis, this may have already been done, but it has been a problem in the past. If a C-130 flies into the area, will probably need to be hangered. If the Alaska Air National Guard (or Army, Navy, or Air Force) had a facility there, it might meet the most immediate needs.

    I don’t believe the CG plans on putting the C-130Js in Alaska, but their longer range, greater endurance, and higher speed would certainly be an advantage both there and in the Western Pacific (the two largest portions of the American EEZ).

    Hopefully, when SAR is required in the Arctic, the position will be well established, because the survivors are unlikely to be able to wait while fixed wing assets look for them. That suggest to me, the localization capabilities of systems like Rescue 21 may be as important as fixed wing search assets.

    Presumably the Coast Guard has also looked into flying aircraft out of Canada and Russia as well. (Canada have any aviation support facilities close to the border?)

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