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Rex Tillerson: Coast Guard has one 'crummy' icebreaking ship

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"I think we have one functioning icebreaker today," Tillerson said at the Wilson Center. "The Coast Guard's very proud of it, as crummy as it is." (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

U.S. Coast Guard commanders have just one “crummy” icebreaking ship at their disposal, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday.

“I think we have one functioning icebreaker today,” Tillerson said at the Wilson Center. “The Coast Guard’s very proud of it, as crummy as it is.”

Tillerson’s jibe was delivered to laughter, but points to a serious concern for American policymakers who regard the Arctic as a new theater of competition between the United States and other world powers. Russia, among others, has made significant military investments in the region while the United States focused on other strategic priorities and cut defense spending.

“So, we’re late to the game,” Tillerson said.

The Coast Guard has three operational icebreakers: The heavy icebreaker Polar Star, medium icebreaker Healy, and the Mackinaw, which operates on the Great Lakes.

Tillerson is not the first U.S. government official to sound the alarm about the need for more icebreakers, but he’s one of the highest-ranking. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, authored legislation that passed in February requiring the Pentagon to update its strategy for the Arctic, in light of competitors’ expansion in the region.

And Adm. Paul Zukunft, the U.S. Coast Guard commandant, warned in May Russia is planning to deploy icebreaking vessels armed with cruise missiles, which could give them a substantial military advantage in the region.

"They've got all their chess pieces on the board right now and right now we've got a pawn and maybe a rook,” Zukunft 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.”

Tillerson noted “even the Chinese are building icebreaking tankers,” despite the fact China doesn’t have a geographic connection to the Arctic.

“The United States is behind,” he said during the Wilson Center event. “But the whole Arctic region, because of what’s happened with the opening of the Arctic passageways from an economic and trade standpoint, but certainly from a national security standpoint, is vitally important to our interest.”