As Obama presents his final budget, the administration must include funding to fund a new fleet of icebreakers so the Coast Guard can carry out its critical mandates.
THE United States faces a serious problem in the Arctic. Brave men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard lack the equipment required to safely and effectively operate in the polar regions, despite growing national security, trade, transportation, search-and-rescue, environmental response and research-mission requirements.
It is critical we address our polar icebreaking deficiencies, immediately. These vessels are necessary if the United States is going to play a leading role in the Arctic.
The Arctic is undergoing dramatic climate changes that will impact access and exploration of the region. Given that the economies of Alaska and Washington are so closely linked, the transformation of the Arctic will have serious regional impact on maritime jobs in both states. A report by the McDowell Group in 2015 found in the Puget Sound region, Alaska-related business fueled 113,000 jobs and $6.2 billion in earnings in Washington’s economy.
Three years ago, President Obama issued an executive order to improve implementation of the National Arctic Strategy, but little has been done yet. The administration must pursue a strategy with significant actions proportionate to the challenges and opportunities we face in the Arctic.
As shipping, tourism, fishing and other industries look to the Arctic, there is a glacier-sized elephant in the room: We do not have the assets we need to safely operate.
The U.S. Coast Guard has only three polar icebreakers: two heavy (the Polar Sea and the Polar Star) and one medium (the Healy). The two heavy icebreakers are more than 40 years old, with the Polar Sea currently sitting idle pending a decision on refurbishment. Our medium icebreaker does not have the capacity required for deep ice penetration.
These three icebreakers are tasked with meeting Coast Guard and U.S. Department of Defense missions for national defense, maritime law enforcement and oceanographic surveying — and by all estimates, this fleet is woefully inadequate. Numerous studies, including a strategic assessment by the U.S. Navy, have confirmed that the Coast Guard requires a minimum of three heavy and three medium ships to fulfill polar missions.
One heavy icebreaker simply isn’t enough for the Coast Guard to carry out its missions. Russia has 40 operational icebreakers. Even China operates a polar icebreaker and has invested in a second.
Last year, the Seattle-based Polar Star was delivering supplies to a base in the Antarctic, but was diverted to rescue a fishing vessel 850 miles away. In this instance, the Coast Guard was able to deliver critical supplies and save 26 fishermen. But what if the 40-year-old Polar Star’s aged engine had malfunctioned? Or gotten stuck? As Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Zukunft said when it comes to icebreaking crews, “There is no one to rescue the rescuer.”
Last May, I introduced a bill to authorize the construction of six heavy icebreakers. In August, President Obama called for speeding up construction so we could cut steel on a new ship by 2020. That’s good news, but it’s not good enough. If we fund an icebreaker today, we will still have a six-year gap in icebreaking capability from when our current ships retire to when new vessels can enter service.
We cannot continue to debate this issue while other countries build icebreakers to access the polar regions. We need to face this serious gap in Arctic readiness. As President Obama presents his final budget to Congress, the administration must include funding to refurbish the Polar Sea and fund a new fleet of icebreakers so the Coast Guard can carry out its critical mandates.
Anything short of this would seriously undermine our national interests in Arctic waters.