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.