President Obama’s urgent call to construct a new fleet of heavy Coast Guard icebreakers to monitor the contested Arctic is belied by his recent budgets that slashed funding for even one new ship.
Mr. Obama, in a game of polar ice chess with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his 40-plus icebreakers, made the gap one of his themes as he toured Alaska last week. Officials say the U.S. needs to keep pace in the face of an increasingly serious challenge by Russia, which is making new territorial claims on the Arctic.
But even by the White House’s own internal projections, one new ship would not enter service for another decade, not in time to take over for the nation’s only remaining heavy ice breaker now in its last years of use.
By next decade the U.S. will have no heavy ice breaker, while expansion-minded Russia, with a considerably larger Arctic border, owns six nuclear-powered ice breakers — four of which are operational and 40 overall.
Both in 2014 and this year, the Department of Homeland Security slashed spending by 73 percent to plan for just one more icebreaker, much less a new fleet. Next year’s fiscal 2016 budget cuts that funding even more, from $230 million to $166 million.
The current budget does “not state when a construction contract for the ship might be awarded, creating uncertainty about the timing of the project,” says a new report by the Congressional Research Service.
White House internal plans are to buy a new $1 billion ship by 2020, meaning it would not enter service for another five years. As for a new fleet, there is no timetable.
Ronald O’Rourke, CRS’s naval expert, said the U.S.’ only operational heavy ice breaker, the Polar Star, is nearly 40 years old. Without a new refurbishing, the ship will be deactivated in the 2019-22 time frame. This means the White House schedule would leave the nation without any heavy icebreakers for two to six years.
A second heavy icebreaker, the 1970s Polar Sea, sits inactive. Years of crushing 6-foot-deep ice left its engine incapacitated.
The Coast Guard also owns a third ship considered a medium polar icebreaker. The Healy can punch through about four feet of ice.
The Arctic has grown in strategic significance the past decade as Russia President Putin has made claims on new territory and increased polar operations. The Arctic is made up of ice and waterways owned by five nations, including the U.S. and Russia.
James Russell, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School, said modernizing something as basic as icebreakers is important when dealing with Mr. Putin.
“It’s important for the United States to demonstrate that it is not going to put up with Putin’s petty political gestures in places like the Arctic, an area of importance to us and our vital ally in Canada,” he said. “We must stand with our allies and partners and push back in parts of the world where it makes sense. Putin has become an international rogue.”
The Coast Guard is mandated by law to carry out a number of missions there, the CRS report says.
• Supporting scientific research.
• Monitoring U.S. territorial waters and spying on sea traffic north of Alaska.
• Conducting traditional Coast Guard operations such as law enforcement and search and rescue.
As sea ice melts, the region is becoming more accessible to ships in international waters and more susceptible to demands for its natural resources.
“Although polar ice is diminishing due to climate change, observers generally expect that this development will not eliminate the need for U.S. polar icebreakers, and in some respects might increase mission demands for them,” the CRS report said. “Even with the diminishment of polar ice, there are still significant ice-covered areas in the polar regions.”
The Obama administration in 2013 released a policy paper called a “National Strategy for the Arctic Region.”
“We seek an Arctic region that is stable and free of conflict, where nations act responsibly in a spirit of trust and cooperation, and where economic and energy resources are developed in a sustainable manner that also respects the fragile environment and the interests and cultures of indigenous peoples,” the paper said.
Two weeks before his Alaska visit, three Republican House members sent Mr. Obama a letter urging him to elevate the icebreaker gap to a national debate.
“The United States can ill afford to stand by while other Arctic nations assert themselves,” the letter said. “Our national security and economic interests dictate that we maintain a robust presence throughout the Arctic region. Central to these responsibilities is a functional fleet of icebreakers.”
The letter was signed by Reps. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; Duncan Hunter of California, chairman of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee; and Don Young of Alaska.