The Coast Guard needs new icebreakers to protect U.S. interests in the Arctic

Dec 8, 2011

Seattle Times

By Lance Dickie

December 8, 2011

The Cutter Polar Star is being prepared for reactivation. It is one of the nation's two Polar Class icebreakers.

Dramatic climate change in the Arctic is rapidly diminishing the polar ice cover, exposing serious environmental, economic and security issues across the top of the world.

Ecological upheaval is producing a long coveted Northwest Passage for shipping, with all its opportunities and complications.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, is working to focus congressional attention on giving the U.S. Coast Guard the ability to protect America's interests. As the ranking member of the House Transportation subcommittee on the Coast Guard, and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, he is well positioned to do so.

Icebreakers are the key to "assured access to ice-covered seas independent of ice conditions." Those words, from a 2007 National Research Council report, are reinforced by Coast Guard studies, including "The High Latitude Region Mission Analysis," and a comprehensive look at icebreaker issues and options published in November by the Congressional Research Service.

All conclude the Coast Guard lacks the icebreaker capacity to represent U.S. interests in coming years. At least two new ships are needed. In the face of such clarity, the political jumble in Congress is a bit of a puzzle. Just to be clear:

"Changing conditions in the Arctic are driving domestic and international discussions and debate on boundary claims and freedom of navigation, natural resources, scientific research, climate, homeland security, and national defense," the Coast Guard reported to Congress in 2008.

Nonetheless, the Coast Guard chose to spend its capital budget on National Security Cutters, a smaller, nimble ship for coastal security operations. Money for icebreakers went into a $61 million rehab of the Polar Star, being overhauled at Vigor Shipyards in Seattle. A second, also aged heavy-duty icebreaker, the Polar Sea, has an unknown fate.

That leaves the Coast Guard with the 12-year-old Healy, adequate for scientific research but not hefty enough for the thickest ice in the depth of winter.

House Republicans want to decommission the Polar Sea and Polar Star and lease icebreakers for the Coast Guard. Nevermind none are available. Leasing supplemental equipment — aircraft — is one thing. Owning, operating and maintaining resources fundamental to a mission is basic.

The Coast Guard said it needs three heavy-duty icebreakers and three medium-duty icebreakers. The cost for one is put at $895 million, with volume discounts.

Get started. These monster icebreakers take years to build, but have an operating life of several decades. If the Chinese will not loan us the cash, spread the cost among the Department of Defense, and other federal clients. Do not lay it all off on the Coast Guard.

Arctic conditions, and duties in Antarctica, demand the capacity to navigate year round. More shipping, ecotourism, resource extraction and transport, and fights over sovereignty require protection of basic U.S. interests very close to home.

Grab funds from Iraq and Afghanistan contingencies. Close U.S. bases in Germany. Now it's an icebreaker gap, not the Fulda Gap. Get real about the gravy in defense contracts, including the leasing of icebreakers.

Once again, spread costs and be honest about our thin capabilities and options in U.S. polar operations. Spend the money; this is like arguing about needing a fire truck.

Larsen's subcommittee recently heard temporary options from an executive with Vigor Shipping who estimated the Polar Sea could be operational with engine work for $11 million. A retired commander of the Polar Sea told the same Dec. 1 hearing the icebreaker was otherwise in decent shape.

The Navy has new combat ships designed to work close to shore around the world. Give the Coast Guard the capacity to serve and protect in all U.S. territorial waters.