Race to the North

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      Race to the North

      There's a growing competition between the U.S., Russia and China, and it's taking place in a part of the world that may surprise you: The Arctic. That desolate expanse of sea and ice almost one and half times the size of the United States. You might call it a new 'Cold War.' Scott Thuman reports how the U.S. could be falling behind, in this race for the north.

      On a summer day at a remote base in Alaska, we board a Coast Guard H-60 helicopter and head out to see a patch of ocean the U.S. military calls a primary new battlefield in the rush to establish a stronghold in the Arctic.

      And board this 420-foot Coast Guard ship underway on its next long voyage.

      Scott: "So we left Coast Guard Station Kodiak. Now, we're over the Gulf of Alaska, and just behind me here, that is the Healy. It is the most technologically advanced and newest icebreaker, but as always, they say they could use more in what many people are terming a race to the north.

      As we land, there is no doubt this is a critical asset, both a show of force and a scientific lab at sea.

      When we met her, the Healy was heading north to sail through the Arctic Ocean along what's fast becoming a vital, efficient sea route between Europe and Asia. This region, the backdrop for heated competition.

      Though Arctic ice is receding, powerful icebreaking ships are still vital to create sea lanes for much of the year. And Russia's fleet dwarfs all others, with dozens of ships, some nuclear-powered and new ones launched every couple of years.

      Aside from the Healy, America has only one more in that class, the Polar Star, more than 40-years-old, a decade past its intended life.

      Admiral Nathan Moore: Today, the Arctic is a growing business, you know, both internationally and certainly from the United States standpoint ourselves.

      Admiral Nathan Moore recently took command of the Alaska region for the Coast Guard.

      Scott: When it comes to the Arctic, you've said north to the future. What do you mean by that?

      Admiral Moore: Well, I think what we see is as the traffic increases in the Bering Sea, and that is happening both tourism, you know, economic traffic, both from industry and governmental traffic, scientific research, et cetera. You know, there is more traffic going up to the Arctic and through the Bering Sea than we've ever seen before, and that's forecasted to continue.

      Because there are so many prizes in the Arctic. The faster shipping routes can, in China's case, save thousands of miles and weeks of time for goods traveling between Asia and Europe. Then, there are giant mineral resources, including gold, uranium, and rare earth elements. Oil and gas reserves could be worth $35 trillion.

      Russia hopes to draw 30 percent of its national production from the region by the year 2050. President Trump authorized expanded oil drilling in the arctic. President Biden has set stricter limits.

      Then Coast Guard Deputy Commandant Admiral Charles Ray under congressional questioning last year.

      Senator Ted Cruz: In your assessment today, who is the dominant power in the arctic circle?

      Admiral Charles Ray: You can see the extensive shoreline that Russia has, you know they are a force to be reckoned with, just because of geography. They have got the geography, and they have got the natural resources there. So in the near term, I think Russia is certainly the nation that we should really be paying close attention to, but we cannot ever take our eyes off the ball on China.

      China, despite its distance from the Arctic, is aggressively making its own claim: building icebreakers and funding infrastructure projects. The U.S., critics say, is playing catch up. President Trump approved production of six new icebreakers to be built by 2029, the same year the Healy and Polar Star are slated to retire.

      The U.S. government is also considering building arctic bases and a port, as the Russians have already done.

      President Biden, too, has asked Congress to provide more cash, at least $1 billion.

      Admiral Moore: I think the Coast Guard and the United States has made great strides in getting polar security cutter on the way for us. I mean, we have construction ongoing right now for the first polar security cutter. Second one under contract, those ships are going to be incredibly useful for us, both high latitudes and the Arctic and the Antarctic.

      Scott: Do you wish they were already here, though?

      Admiral Moore: I think we have coverage that we continue to maintain with our current Polar Star, which is an aging asset. I was a junior officer on Polar Star my first tour in the Coast Guard 29-years-ago. And that ship is been incredibly successful, but needs to be replaced.

      To see the needs ourselves, we head further north, to the remote town of Kotzebue, just 175 miles from Russia.

      Scott: They call this the gateway to the Arctic, but even as a remote as it is, it's getting busier, and more people means a bigger strain.

      Especially on Coast Guard crews detailed to provide life-saving Arctic patrols. Lt. Robert McDonnell is one of our pilots today.

      Lt. Robert McDonnell: So, we got cruise ships going all the way through the Bering Strait all the way up and over. It's unprecedented times for people being able to pass through the Arctic in vessels that weren't made to pass through ice because there is no ice during the summer now.

      Back on the deck of the ice breaker Healy, the crew trains for more missions in the arctic, anxious for more ships like it to join the fleet, and fully aware that in the race for the north, the U.S. is being left behind.

      Sharyl (on-camera): Who decides who lays claim to what in the Arctic?

      Scott(on-camera): Each of the eight nations that have land bordering the Arctic Sea have made claims at least partially to either territory or its natural resources. But sometimes they overlap, like with Russia, and then the U.N. gets to decide.