US President Barack Obama pushes for more US ice-breaking might in Arctic

US President Barack Obama delivers remarks to the GLACIER Conference at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage, Alaska.
US President Barack Obama delivers remarks to the GLACIER Conference at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage, Alaska.PHOTO: REUTERS

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (REUTERS) - President Barack Obama on Tuesday proposed a faster timetable for buying a new heavy icebreaker for the US Arctic, where quickly melting sea ice has spurred more maritime traffic, and the United States has fallen far behind Russian resources.

The move, part of a push to convince Americans to support Obama's plans to curb climate change, has long been urged by Arctic advocates as climate change opens up the region to more shipping, mining and drilling.

The announcement came as Obama heads to the coastal town of Seward, named after Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the purchase of Alaska in 1867 from Russia.

In the first step of Obama's new timetable, the government would buy a heavy icebreaker by 2020 instead of the previous goal of 2022. The United States used to have seven icebreakers, but the fleet has dwindled to three creaky vessels, only one of which is a heavy-duty vessel, the White House said.

"Russia, on the other hand, has 40 icebreakers and another 11 planned or under construction," the White House said.

Obama will have to convince Congress to pick up the tab for any new icebreakers, each of which come with a price tag of about US$1 billion (S$1.41 billion).

"The devil, as always, will be in the funding and procurement details," said Heather Conley of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, who has studied the need for more Arctic icebreakers.

The region also needs enhanced navigation aids, satellite communications, deep water ports and other related investments not mentioned in the White House announcement, Conley noted.

At a time of dwindling big-ticket weapons programs, Obama's announcement lays the groundwork for the US Coast Guard to launch a competition to build a new icebreaker.

Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc has built icebreakers in the past, and General Dynamics Corp, the other large U.S. military shipbuilder, might bid for such work.

No comment was immediately available from either company.

The company that built existing U.S. icebreakers, Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction, has exited the business and its Seattle shipyard was shut down in 1988.

It usually takes up to 10 years to build an icebreaker, and it was not immediately clear when Obama's proposed new vessel might be ready.

The White House also said the government should start planning for additional vessels. The Coast Guard has previously recommended it needs eight icebreakers, although no administration budget has yet included the huge funding request.