Icebreakers, Resource Allocation Questioned During Coast Guard Hearing
BY JOHN C. MARCARIO, Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON — The Coast Guard should not be forced to deploy such old, decrepit heavy icebreakers, the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation oceans, atmosphere, fisheries, and coast guard subcommittee said Nov. 16.
“There’s a national security need for [heavy] icebreakers and what needs to be done for procurement of them,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said during a hearing on the service’s readiness and mission capability.
The Coast Guard has on numerous occasions that it needs need at least six new icebreakers: three heavy and three medium endurance.
On Oct. 19, the U.S. Navy, in collaboration with the Coast Guard, released a draft Request for Proposal (RfP) for the detail design and construction of a heavy polar icebreaker. The draft RfP is for one heavy icebreaker, with options for two more.
Money was included for an icebreaker in the recently passed 2018 defense authorization bill. Contract award is planned for fiscal year 2019, subject to the funding being appropriated. The Coast Guard is hopeful a new heavy icebreaker will be ready by fiscal 2023. That is when the service life of Polar Star, its lone functional heavy icebreaker, will expire.
“We need make these investments,” Adm. Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard commandant, said during the hearing, noting that the icebreakers should be procured in block buys, which could save money.
The Coast Guard is the lead federal agency for response and security operations in the Arctic while the Navy supports the service’s missions. As sea lanes continue to open, and polar ice continues to recede, the region has seen more commercial and tourist vessel traffic and natural resource exploration. With that has come a rising safety and security concerns.
The service operates the only U.S.-flag heavy icebreakers capable of providing year-round access to the region. The Coast Guard currently has three polar icebreakers, Polar Star, Polar Sea and Healy. Healy, a medium icebreaker, is largely used for scientific research missions. Polar Sea has been out of operation since 2010, when an engine casualty left the ship immobile.
Zukunft painted a bleak picture of the current state of heavy icebreakers. The commandant said that when Polar Star embarks on a mission in a few weeks, if it gets stuck in ice, there is no way for the United States to be able to break it break it free.
“We have to ask Russia. … I don’t want to be put in that position,” he said. “We have no self-rescue capability.”
The Russians have 40 heavy breakers with nearly a dozen more on order.
Subcommittee Ranking Member, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said he, too, shares concerns about the heavy icebreaking fleet.
“We will do everything we can to make sure you have the resources you need in the Arctic region,” he said.
Peters also touched on icebreaking in a smaller capacity, in the Great Lakes region, which is heavily traversed by commercial ships.
Zukunft said the service’s fleet of 140-foot Bay-class icebreaking tugs will need to be recapitalized soon, noting that design work on newer ones would need to be begin by fiscal 2030, depending on how severe the coming ice seasons are in the region.
During the hearing Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, also touched on the service’s capability to handle drug smuggling, and questioned if resources could be better allotted elsewhere.
“It’s not clear to me we are winning the drug war,” he said.
Schatz suggested that some tough decisions need to be made going forward on how to handle drug smuggling.
Sullivan asked the commandant if he would work more closely with the panel on strategic operations and placement of assets going forward, in relation to drug interdiction.
“You have my commitment on that,” Zukunft said.