The icebreaker St. Petersburg hits the water (Image gallery)
WASHINGTON, July 17 (RIA Novosti) - A top U.S. Coast Guard official has told lawmakers that Russia is getting ahead of the United States in the "Arctic race" and the current U.S. administration must urgently revise its approach to Arctic exploration.
"I'm concerned we are watching our nation's ice-breaking capabilities decline," Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Wednesday.
"It's imperative to obtain the current validating capabilities so our polar operations can be met," he said.
The Coast Guard chief said Russia had finally put to sea last year the largest icebreaker in its polar fleet - the 50 Years of Victory - which has been under construction since 1989 and guarantees Russia easy access to the vast natural resources in the Arctic region.
Allen said Russia is the only other country, besides the United States, with polar ice breaking capabilities, but the Russian fleet is in far better shape, with "seven to eight" nuclear-powered polar ice breakers.
The U.S. Coast Guard's medium- and Polar-class ice breaking fleet consists of the cutters Healy, Polar Sea and Polar Star.
Healy, which was commissioned in 2000, is the newest of the ships and is primarily designed for scientific research in the Arctic.
The Polar Star and Polar Sea, both commissioned in the 1970s, are due for a major overhaul and need millions of dollars in maintenance and repairs to stay operational in the future.
Speaking at the same hearings, Mead Treadwell, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, supported Allen's assessment of the situation.
"In the 20th century, the advent of aircraft, missiles, and missile defense made the Arctic region a major venue for projection of power and a frontier for protecting the security of North America, Asia and Europe," he said.
"Polar-class icebreakers are the largest and most capable of ice-going ships. Indeed, an accessible Arctic Ocean also means new or expanded routes for the U.S. military sealift to move assets from one part of the world to another. The Commission believes polar icebreakers are an essential maritime component to guarantee that this U.S. polar mobility exists," Treadwell said.
Meanwhile, Russia's state nuclear corporation Rosatom will take over responsibility in August for Russia's nuclear icebreaker fleet, which currently consists of six operational nuclear icebreakers.
Experts said Russia would need six to 10 nuclear-powered icebreakers over the next 20 years, as demand for them is expected to grow with the development of the Arctic shelf and increased traffic along the Northern Sea route.
Rosatom has already announced that Russia will allocate 800 million rubles ($33.9 million) for the maintenance of nuclear icebreakers in 2008 and the first new-generation nuclear icebreaker will be built in Russia by 2015.
Russia has undertaken two Arctic expeditions - to the Mendeleyev underwater chain in 2005 and to the Lomonosov ridge last summer - to back Russian claims to the region.
The area is believed to contain vast oil and gas reserves and other mineral riches, likely to become accessible in future decades due to man-made global warming.
Russia said it would submit documentary evidence to the UN of the external boundaries along the Russian Federation's territorial shelf in 2009.
Under international law, the five Arctic Circle countries - the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia - each currently have a 322-kilometer (200-mile) economic zone in the Arctic Ocean.