The US Navy is widely known in the world as the largest and finest in the world. However, aside from submarines, the Navy cannot do much in the Arctic. The Arctic has, of course, icecaps, and any ship that would sail the Arctic Ocean must be able to negotiate pack ice up to and exceeding 6.4 meters (21 feet) thick at times. If it cannot do this, its path must be opened by an icebreaker, a ship capable of breaking through such ice.
At the present time the United States has but one Coast Guard heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is capable of breaking seven-foot thick ice. However, in February of 2018, the aging ship ran into significant problems. As discussed in a piece written by Business Insider, on January 11, one of the ship’s main gas turbines failed. On the 16th, a shaft seal failed and the engine room started taking on water at the rate of 20 gallons per minute.
The Coast Guard has a sister ship to the Polar Star called the Polar Sea, but this ship left service in 2010 because of repeated engine failure. In 2017 the Coast Guard decided it was too expensive to refurbish this ship, though her hull was still sound. The Polar Star was refurbished, but sometimes keeping this ship running requires ordering second-hand parts from sources such as eBay.
While the US has the heaviest-duty capable icebreaker, then, it has a problem with the same ship because if it breaks down there is no other US ship that can assist it. To do that, said Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft, the Americans would have to call upon Russia, with its 54 icebreakers, including some nuclear powered vessels.
This video shows some of the sophistication achieved by the Russian icebreaker fleet.
Present-day developments in the Arctic have decreasing ice-cover conditions there, so the ability to sail the Arctic Sea is seen as a huge cost-cutter for transportation of goods from nation to nation. To that end, China as well as Russia have developed highly sophisticated icebreaking ships while the US has foundered in its own programs due to political and financial neglect.
One thing is very interesting about the Russian program. Many of its large-scale icebreakers are civilian ships, owned by the country’s large energy companies, like Gazprom. Six of Russia’s ten nuclear-powered civilian ships are in the Arktika class, capable of breaking ice up to 2.8 meters thick (thicker than most Arctic ice ever gets), and with max speeds up to 22 knots.
In today’s world commerce is the preferred form of warfare, it would seem. It would also seem that the United States has been caught flat-footed in this regard.