In June 2016 Russia launched its first new icebreaker since the 1970s. The new ship is a 6,000 ton (deadweight), 85 meter (180 foot) long vessel that can handle ice up to a meter thick. Meanwhile Russia is building three Artika class nuclear powered icebreakers. These are much larger (173 meters long and 33,500 tons) vessels that can handle ice three meters thick. With a crew of 75, Artika class ships can stay at sea for up to six months at a time. Currently Russia has the largest icebreaker fleet (41 ships), followed by Finland (seven), Sweden and Canada (six each) and the United States (five).
Russia has always had the largest fleet of icebreakers. That’s because it has a 5,600 kilometer northern border (from Murmansk, near Norway, to the Bering Strait, near Alaska). There was not a lot shipbuilding in Russia after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and many of their icebreakers are in need of replacement. Then there is the need to protect the growing number of oil and natural gas fields being developed off the northern coasts along with the need to more precisely chart the safest routs for ships to use along the coast. This includes finding and precisely locating rocks and reefs that ships could run aground on. With the north coast more frequently ice free in warm weather Russia sees a need for surface ships patrolling the area. Nuclear subs continue to run underwater patrols during Winter, when the coastline is iced in.
The U.S. Navy noted the increased Russian activity in the arctic and became publicly alarmed at the fact that the U.S. Navy was no longer prepared to operate in the arctic. Actually, the U.S. Navy was never big on operating in the arctic. The navy used to have seven Wind class icebreakers, built near the end of World War II. But these were mainly to maintain access to polar shipping lanes that were only needed in wartime. These icebreakers were turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard after World War II and all were retired by the 1980s. The navy saw no compelling reason to maintain a fleet of icebreakers any longer. The U.S. Coast Guard currently has 3 icebreakers but one is being decommissioned and the other is out of action for maintenance. The more recent one (entered service in 1999) is on call to rush to Antarctica to help keep a passage open to research facilities there.