Cooperation Could Answer U.S. Icebreaking Needs

Arctia's multipurpose icebreaker Fennica, photo: Arctia Ltd.

By Tero Vauraste 2016-08-04 18:22:55

The United States is currently contemplating the acquisition of replacement heavy icebreakers. Unlike one would gather from domestic discussions, the U.S. is not alone. The global fleet of about 110 icebreakers is aging rapidly, and other Western nations with icebreaking needs such as Canada, Finland and Sweden, have begun icebreaker renewal programs. Capacity needs exist also in many other countries active in polar areas.

What could this concurrence of national icebreaking needs mean to the U.S. and other Arctic nations? Has anyone stopped to consider icebreaking partnerships with the private sector and bilateral or international arrangements? Apparently not seriously enough, judging by the latest hearings in the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

In a Subcommittee hearing on June 14, 2016, U.S. Coast Guard Vice Commandant Admiral Charles D. Michel stated that “…there’s nothing out there on Planet Earth that you can lease in the heavy icebreaking area.” 

In another hearing on July 12, the Admiral said the U.S. Coast Guard: “does not operate commercial vessels.” These statements sound strange in the ears of a Finn.

Finland is a forerunner in international collaboration as well as public-private arrangements within icebreaking services. The country can procure icebreaking services from both public and private partners and has currently three icebreaking treaties: one between Nordic countries and bilateral treaties with both Sweden and Russia. During Arctic summer when the fleet is not required in the Baltic Sea, Finnish icebreakers are available for charter for international missions in polar areas.

Considering three facts,

•    that the U.S. is expected to need the services of more than one heavy icebreaker in the next 25 years,
•    that there is a gap of several years between the end of the currently operating icebreakers’ service life and the expected delivery date for a newbuild, and
•    that there is heavy icebreaking capacity available for charter elsewhere,

it is odd that sharing icebreaker assets with the private sector and other nations seems to be a shunned option in the U.S. Why couldn’t we consider for example using the Baltic Sea icebreaker fleet to fill the gaps in North America?

Icebreakers in the Baltic Sea are utilized at a low rate, around 30 to 40 percent annually, mainly just during the harshest winter months. Sharing icebreaker assets with other Arctic nations would raise this rate and bring affordable strategic icebreaking options to the U.S.

Finland’s newest icebreaker Polaris costs about $150 million, a fraction of the price budgeted for a new U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker ($1 billion). Finland has been building icebreakers for a century and it does not take a decade to build one there. Finnish shipyards have recent experience in building modern heavy icebreakers.

Finland can provide designing, building and operating expertise as well as tailor-made services in the heavy icebreaking area. In addition, Finnish partners can help the U.S. benchmark and try out best practices for example in the form of a few years chartering agreement.

Certainly there are some barriers to this kind of cooperation. But if there is political will, there is also a way. Compared to building a heavy icebreaker or coping without one for several years, chartering, joint ventures and Arctic-to-Arctic partnerships are all good options. Cheaper and quicker options the U.S. should seriously consider.

Tero Vauraste is President and CEO of icebreaker operator Arctia Ltd and Vice Chair of the Arctic Economic Council (AEC).

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.