President Trump's team could decide to arm future Coast Guard icebreakers in order to counteract Russian cruise missiles in the Arctic, the Coast Guard's top admiral said following a meeting with the administration.
"They understand that it's good that you have a U.S. Coast Guard that is a military service," Adm. Paul Zukunft, the U.S. Coast Guard commandant, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday. "So what might an icebreaker of the 21st century need to be? You might want to reserve space, weight and power where you have an offensive and a defensive armed capability as a military service ... that could be a future requirement for our icebreaking fleet."
Such a weaponization has become necessary due to Russian military deployments in the Arctic. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited a new military base in the region, which has also seen deployments of special forces and surface-to-air missile capabilities. Zukunft predicted Russia will also "launch two icebreaking corvettes with cruise missiles on them in the course of the next several years," putting the United States forces at a severe disadvantage unless the Coast Guard deploys rival icebreakers.
"They've got all their chess pieces on the board right now and right now we've got a pawn and maybe a rook," he said. "And so, if you look at this Arctic game of chess, if you will, they've got us at checkmate, right from the very beginning if it does become a militarized domain."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Arctic Council in Alaska next week, as part of attempts to build trust between the United States and Russia. "I don't know where it will go," Tillerson confessed to State Department staff on Wednesday.
But the Arctic could develop into a new theater for competition between the former Cold War adversaries. "It really is going to be a test of U.S. will: Are we serious about being an Arctic nation?" Zukunft said.