Democratic lawmakers, worried about growing Russian and Chinese competition in the Arctic, have criticized the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to free up money for a U.S.-Mexico border wall by reallocating $750 million that had been earmarked for a polar icebreaker.
The U.S. icebreaker fleet is miniscule in comparison to Russia, which has more than 40 icebreakers, according to the Congressional Research Service. The melting ice has degraded Russia’s natural border defenses, prompting Moscow to respond with more ships and new military facilities in the region.
Recently, Russia has raised alarms by declaring plans to expand its Arctic domain.
“Russia has claimed natural resources and territories in the Arctic that exceed its international rights and is investing in ice-capable military assets to back up that claim,” a letter signed last week by eight House lawmakers said.
China, which has no territorial claim in the Arctic but considers itself a stakeholder, has two heavy icebreakers and plans to acquire more.
Various nations are eyeing the Arctic region with greater interest as ice caps melt, which is opening up access for military, commercial and research vessels. But even as the ice caps weaken and shrink, ships must still carve out passageways.
The Arctic region is believed to hold an estimated 13 percent of the world’s untapped oil reserves, 30 percent of its natural gas and vast mineral resources, according to U.S. Geological Survey estimates.
The new icebreaker had been intended to boost the Coast Guard’s fleet, which includes one working heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, and one disabled heavy icebreaker, each of which have exceeded their 30-year service lives. The fleet also operates a medium icebreaker and a research vessel with light ice-breaking capability.
The Senate tentatively approved $750 million in February to build the new heavy icebreaker.
But Homeland Security stripped the funding from its most recent budget proposal, allocating it instead to the proposed border wall. The move prompted the letter from lawmakers, who said the agency sought to cut Coast Guard funding “while wasting a staggering $4.9 billion on a border wall.”
“We urge you in the strongest possible terms to reconsider the misallocation of resources, which would undermine all 11 of the Coast Guard’s statutory missions and place our nation at a distinct economic, geopolitical and national security disadvantage for decades to come,” the letter said.
In 2013, Homeland Security recommended building three new heavy icebreakers and three medium ones, but no money has been allocated for those vessels.
If funded in this budget cycle, the new heavy icebreaker would not enter service until 2023. Coast Guard officials said they don’t want any additional delays.
“We need that ship now,” Coast Guard commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said Wednesday during a speech in Washington.
The Arctic had been the scene of intense military activity for the United States and Soviet Union, but both countries mostly withdrew from the region when the Cold War ended.
The Arctic Council was formed in 1996 and now has eight countries with territory abutting the region — the U.S., Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Denmark and Iceland.
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