Armed icebreaker to protect US interests | Polarjournal
No heavy armament, just heavily reinforced (Photo: Halter Marine)

By any other name, the main job of America’s Polar Security Cutters will be the same as that of the classes of icebreakers that came before them: breaking ice. In official parlance, the function these ships serve is deemed “icebreaking facilities”, and it is a federally mandated Coast Guard duty. 

The Coast Guard, however, has other responsibilities that — as the name of the new class of what may eventually be six ice breakers suggests (and indeed, the name of the first vessel, the Polar Sentinel, strongly indicates) — will also be on the list of a Polar Security Cutter’s responsibilities, among these are law enforcement and protection of America’s maritime resources. These are tasks that require weapons. 

Though coastguard vessels are considered non-combatants during peacetime (prior to being transferred to the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard fell under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Transportation, and, before that, the Treasury), this does not mean that they are not armed: National Security Cutters, the workhorse of the Coast Guard’s fleet, have the same main weapon as the US Navy’s littoral combat ships, a vessel designed to defend America’s shoreline. 

America’s icebreakers once had guns too, but this was in the during the Second World War. Once hostilities ended, and the Wind class icebreakers transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard, their fixed armaments were removed. The current class of ice of America’s heavy ice-breakers, which the Polar Security Cutters will replace, and its medium icebreaker, which three smaller Arctic Security Cutters will replace, continues this tradition.

Not inconsequential (Photo: Chief Master Sgt Gary Emery / US Air Force)

According to Naval News, a website, the Polar Security Cutters will have a 30mm machine gun mounted permanently on its deck. The version the Polar Sentinel will carry will reportedly allow it to engage small, mobile, numerous and fast-moving targets such as drone swarms, small boats, certain incoming projectiles and select aerial targets. 

To be sure, this it no heavy armament, and one gun will not make Polar Security Cutters fighting ships, but nor are these weapons inconsequential: they are employed on land, at sea and in the air by vehicles that are designed for combat. One of the aircraft that uses them, the AC-130 (pictured above with its two of its 30mm guns showing), is known as the most heavily armed gunship in history. But, the point of Polar Security Cutters, according to the Coast Guard, is to protect America’s national interests and to help it maintain “defence readiness” in the Arctic and the Antarctic. 

America will not be alone in having armed ice-breaking vessels. The newest Canadian ice-breaking ships, as well as the Norwegian vessel they are modelled on, are outfitted with a similar deck-mounted machine gun. Hawks, though, like to point to Russia’s own forthcoming class of Arctic ships, the Ivan Papanin class, which will be armed with missiles as well as a deck gun, as a threat America must match. (Its nuclear heavyweights, which are run by Rosatom, the state nuclear-energy firm, are not armed.)

It should come as little surprise that an America that now sees the polar regions as areas were military issues are a consideration, and the Arctic as an area beset by “unpredictable levels of risk”, as the Coast Guard concluded in a 2019 assessment, would be keen on arming its icebreakers. The question is what other firepower it is considering. In 2017, when discussing the need for replacements for the Polar Class icebreakers, Admiral Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the Coast Guard, told Congress that America needed to “look differently” at what an icebreaker’s mission was. “We need to reserve space, weight and power if we need to strap a cruise missile package on it.” Ice-breaking may never be the same.

Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
Featured image: MC3 Patrick Dionne / US Navy 

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