Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) seemed lost for an answer during the CNN climate town hall when questioned about whether the U.S. should have more icebreakers in the Arctic amid a growing Russian presence.
When asked if she would grow the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet to match Russia’s, she questioned the purpose of having icebreakers in the Arctic.
“It depends on what the purpose of those icebreakers is. What is the purpose? What are we saying is a legitimate purpose there?” she said when pressed for a second time.
Initially, CNN Anchor Bill Weir told Harris that he had just returned from a reporting trip to the Arctic, where he saw one of the U.S. Coast Guard’s two fully-operational icebreakers.
Weir, noting Russia’s growing fleet of at least three dozen icebreakers and its intentions to dominate new melting pathways and the discovery of natural resources there, asked Harris what she would direct the U.S. military to do in the region and what would she say to allies and enemies to leave those resources intact.
Harris first said there was a lot to “unpack,” briefly noted Russia’s motivation to “expand its territory,” and then quickly pivoted away to the issue of land preservation.
“Let’s put that aside and talk about our involvement there — we should not be selling or leasing public land for the purposes of drilling,” she said to applause.
She then moved on to alleged “corruption” by members of the Trump administration. She did not name anyone specifically but claimed that there were members who have worked in industries “profiteering” off harming the environment and plan to go back to those industries after leaving government.
However, CNN Anchor Erin Burnett did not let Harris off the hook, and went back to Weir’s original question.
“Getting back to Russia … this has been a long issue, and we have done nothing about it as a country … would you match them on the icebreakers?”
Harris responded, “It depends on what the purpose of those icebreakers is. What is the purpose? What are we saying is a legitimate purpose there?”
“If we can answer the question then perhaps we can have that conversation, but I don’t know what the legitimate purpose is,” she said.
More icebreakers are seen as critical for the U.S. to conduct operations in the Arctic. Harris’s colleague in the Senate, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), recently visited the region and was much more versed on the issue.
He said in an August 26 statement:
What happens in this region affects our entire nation’s economy and security. Billions of dollars in commercial shipping goes through the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. Those vessels transport oil and gas resources discovered beneath the ice, bring seafood from local fisheries around the world, and connect the hundreds of thousands of Americans who call Alaska home.
Securing America’s interests in the Arctic requires a fleet of ships capable of patrolling and exploring the region. The Senate Commerce Committee, which I chair, oversees the U.S. Coast Guard, the tip of the spear projecting American power around the globe, including in the Arctic. I recently traveled to Alaska to speak with the men and women at Air Station Kodiak and aboard the Coast Guard Cutters Healy and Douglas Munro about their missions and priorities.
The Healy is one of only two fully operational polar icebreakers in the Coast Guard’s fleet. It can break up to five feet of ice in temperatures as low as negative 50 degrees Fahrenheit, keeping key trade routes open. It also performs search and rescue operations, escorts other ships, and enforces our laws and treaties. At any time, there may be as many as 50 scientists on the Healy, turning it into a floating laboratory.
The Arctic’s commercial potential is increasing at a time of rising threats in the region from our geopolitical rivals, including Russia and China. Russia in particular has a great deal of experience navigating frozen waters near the North Pole, but America is building and improving more ships like the Healy to close the gap.
The Commerce Committee recently approved the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2019. Mississippi’s expert shipbuilders are already on course to build a new Polar Security Cutter (icebreaker), and this bill would authorize the manufacture of additional vessels to meet the Coast Guard’s growing needs in the Polar Regions.