US Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaking ice in Arctic Ocean

Obama says USA needs new icebreaker to match Russia

The USA needs to quickly acquire at least one new heavy icebreaker capable of navigating the Arctic to keep up with Russia, according to President Barack Obama.

The announcement lays the groundwork for the US Coast Guard to launch a competition to build a new icebreaker, which would come with a price tag of about $1bn (£650m). Under Obama's new timetable, the government would buy a heavy icebreaker by 2020 instead of the previous goal of 2022.

Melting sea ice has spurred more traffic in the Arctic ocean, as climate change opens up the region to shipping, mining and oil drilling, but the US is lagging well behind Russia, which currently has 40 icebreakers, with another 11 planned or under construction.

"Technically, we have three. Operationally, we really have only two," Obama told reporters in the coastal town of Seward, where he is promoting a new push to convince Americans to support his plans to curb climate change.

While it usually takes up to 10 years to build an icebreaker, the White House said the government should start planning for additional vessels as well. The Coast Guard has previously recommended it needs eight icebreakers, although no administration budget has yet included the huge funding request.

"Great powers should have the capabilities for playing a role in the theatre," said Malte Humpert, the head of the Arctic Institute, a think tank. "Russia is ready for anything that happens in the Arctic and China is getting ready to have those capabilities."

Huntington Ingalls Industries, which built the newest US ice breaker and delivered it in 1999, said it was keen to bid on new hardened ships for the Coast Guard, while the other large military shipbuilder in the US, General Dynamics, said it was also very interested.

Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction, the company that built the other existing US icebreakers, has exited the business and its shipyard was shut down in 1988.

Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who has studied the need for more Arctic icebreakers, said the region also needs enhanced navigation aids, satellite communications, deep water ports and other related investments.

Obama will first have to convince Congress to pick up the bill. "The devil, as always, will be in the funding and procurement details," she said. Coast Guard officials have said other agencies will have to chip in to help finance the purchase of new icebreakers.

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