Why Is President Trump Interested In New Polar Bases And Icebreakers?

US President Donald Trump has ordered the construction of a fleet of icebreakers and bases in the Arctic and Antarctic.

It means the United States could be joining Russia and China in the race to secure valuable resources in the polar regions.

The new vessels are expected to be delivered by the end of the decade.

Mr Trump has also asked for recommendations for locations to build two support bases in the US and two on foreign soil.

It follows his "strategic" interest in purchasing Greenland last year, which is already home to Thule Air Base, the northern-most instalment belonging to the United States.

At the base, Air Force officers from 12th Space Warning Squadron use large-scale radars to detect missiles and conduct space surveillance.

Climate change is opening new sea routes and providing access to potential new oil and gas fields.

A US Army missile base built in the 1950s was even exposed last year due to melting ice in Greenland.

Thule air base
Thule Air Base hosts a huge AN/FPS-132 radar, offering 240-degree coverage over Russia's northern coast (Picture: US Department of Defense).

Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (ISS), spoke to Forces News about the significance of Mr Trump's decision.

"In some ways, Mr Trump is really reinforcing plans that are already in place - including the new icebreakers for the US Coast Guard.

"To some extent, he might be trying to inject more urgency into it and possibly look at expanding those plans," Mr Childs said.

He added that "there's no doubt" there has been an increase in the interest in the Arctic and to some extent the Antarctic region as well.

Mr Childs said that because of climate change and as a result of the ice melting in the seas, they are "opening up potential for operations - civil and military in that part of the world".

These new potential opportunities could lead to some potential benefits, but also competition issues and issues of disputes, he added.

Trefoil base
Russia's Arctic Trefoil military base on Franz Josef Land (Picture: Russian Ministry of Defence).

The UK is among the world's militaries to already make use of the Arctic, including most recently Exercise Cold Response with Norwegian forces earlier this year, the first in a ten-year training programme.

In 2018, Russia criticised Britain for its military plans in the Arctic, before a year later announcing its own plans for an expansion of its presence in the region.

Mr Childs says competition is growing for dominance in the polar areas.

"We've also got increased, [in] general, great power competition with Russia and China," he said.

"Those things together mean that there is interest, strategic interest, in these regions and the seas, particularly, that there hasn't been in a long time." 

Asked whether the polar regions could become flashpoints in the future, as the sea ice melts, Mr Childs said there is "concern" that it may become a potential competition area.

"We are already seeing in general terms that navies and militaries, in general, are looking to renew their acquaintance with that part of the world, as well.

"It's a very difficult part of the world to operate in, if you have to do it," he said.

According to the maritime security expert, the West could also be concerned with Russia's presence in the Arctic.

"It is increasing its military infrastructure there [and] it feels to some extent it has to be able to beef up its own defences because of increasing interest, generally.

US icebreaker vessel
A US icebreaker in Antarctica in January (Picture: US Coastguard).

"There are the issues of the threats that might exist in the Arctic in the future, but also those that might emerge from the Arctic Circle.

"For example into the North Atlantic through an old Cold War favourite 'playground', if you like, [of] Greenland, Iceland, UK gap, which is suddenly back in play again."

However, Mr Childs explained that icebreakers may not be the answer to strategic competition in the region.

"In some ways, icebreakers are an important part of having an ability to operate, but they're not the main thing in terms of strategic competition.

"It's more to do with other military capabilities [that can] operate there," he said.

Quoting specific examples, Mr Childs discussed the importance of some UK and US military operations in the Arctic.

"We saw the Royal Navy put a submarine at the North Pole a couple of years ago for the first time in ten years; the Americans operated an aircraft carrier in the Arctic Circle for the first time in decades, recently.

"And only a few weeks ago, you had the US Navy and a Royal Navy frigate operating in the Barents Sea, basically in Russia's strategic backdoor, to show they can do it to themselves, to learn again how to do it, but also, I think, to send a message that, as far as Russia is concerned, they should be aware that NATO and US, UK are able and willing to operate in these areas."

HMS Sutherland
Royal Navy vessel HMS Sutherland during training in the Arctic (Picture: Royal Navy).

Asked why the region seems to be so important to major world powers, the ISS Senior Fellow said there are "a number of elements to it".

"As the environment changes [there is] the potential for further resource exploitation and exploration.

"So, again, [there are] opportunities, but also concerns about disputes and so on.

"There's the opportunity, as far as the Arctic is concerned, particularly - of the opening up of sea routes that will bring Asia and the North Atlantic, Asia and Europe much closer together, which is why you have Chinese interests, as well, in this areas.

"That's sparked a whole range of potential changes - changes in what's going on," he explained.

"A few months ago, President Trump caused a furore by suggesting... that the US might like to buy Greenland.

"There's a strategic importance to the positioning of Greenland, and China have been showing interest in investing in that territory, as well.

"It's because these areas are also the hosts to large elements of things like Russia's nuclear arsenal, the major Russian fleet - the northern fleet... [is] based in that part of the world and operates out of that part of the world.

"It's a whole range of things that are causing people to show interest there."

Cover image: US President Donald Trump pictured in February 2020 (Picture: PA).