After months of growing unease in Washington over the Coast Guard’s Arctic capabilities, President Obama called Tuesday for accelerating the planning and construction of a new icebreaker fleet.
“The growth of human activity in the Arctic region will require highly engaged stewardship to maintain the open seas necessary for global commerce and scientific research, allow for search and rescue activities, and provide for regional peace and stability,” according to a fact sheet issued by the White House, a few hours before Obama delivered remarks Tuesday during his trip to Alaska.
"These heavy icebreakers will ensure that the United States can meet our national interests, protect and manage our natural resources, and strengthen our international, state, local, and tribal relationships," the statement said.
Scientists say parts of the Arctic are warming faster than other parts of the world, reducing sea ice and enabling access to higher latitudes. That’s set off moves by Russia to extend its maritime domain hundreds of miles north of its shores.
While Russia has 40 icebreakers – and plans to build 11 more – to exploit its maritime and energy ambitions in the Arctic, the United States has just two heavy icebreakers, the 399’x83’ Polar Star and Polar Sea, both about 40 years old. A medium icebreaker, the 420’x82’ Healy, was commissioned in 2000, primarily for scientific missions like this summer’s research cruise north of Alaska.
That’s compared to a Coast Guard fleet of seven during World War II, the White House statement noted.
Even China has new Arctic ambitions, with an icebreaker it refurbished in 2012 and plans for a new vessel.
Obama proposed moving up the date for completing the first replacement icebreaker by two years, to 2020, and start planning for more ships with sufficient funding from Congress.
The Coast Guard is weighing whether to refurbish and reactivate the Polar Sea, or permanently decommission it while moving ahead with the new heavy icebreaker. The Polar Sea had an engine failure in 2010, and recently the Coast Guard had to take parts off it to keep sister ship Polar Star operational, Gary Rasicot, the Coast Guard’s director of marine transportation systems, told members of Congress in July.
The Polar Star’s electrical equipment is so old that engineers had to resort to online shopping with the auction site eBay to locate fuses for the main generators and switchboard, Rasicot told the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Marine Transportation.
“We need to think about recapitalizing the icebreaker fleet as opposed to using 40-year-old ships,” he said.
There had been some minor partisan sniping over Coast Guard funding for new ships, with congressional Republicans saying the Obama administration has not set aside enough in budget requests, and the administration contending military cuts forced by budget sequestrations have been the problem.
But in recent months lawmakers from both parties have put out legislation that would set up funds for expanding the icebreaker fleet. An independent study by the General Accountability Office this year reported the Coast Guard needs at least three heavy and three medium icebreakers to fulfill anticipated mission needs in the Arctic and waters around Antarctica.