Coast Guard poised to get needed icebreakers
President Donald Trump, in addressing the Coast Guard Academy's Class of 2017 on Wednesday, indicated his support for building more ships crucial to the Coast Guard's work in the Arctic.
"Out of the five branches of our armed services, it's only the Coast Guard that has the power to break through 21 feet of rock-solid Arctic ice, right? You're the only ones," Trump said. "And I'm proud to say that under my administration, as you just heard, we will be building the first new heavy icebreakers the United States has seen in over 40 years. We're going to build many of them."
Right now, the Coast Guard has only one operational heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which at 40 years old is "literally on life support," Admiral Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard commandant, told a House appropriations subcommittee on Thursday. The Coast Guard's other heavy icebreaker, the Polar Sea, has been out of service since June 2010, when it suffered an engine failure.
The U.S. polar icebreaker fleet includes the Polar Star and Polar Sea; the Healy, a medium icebreaker used primarily for supporting scientific research in the Arctic; and the Nathaniel B. Palmer, operated by the National Science Foundation, which conducts and supports scientific research in the Antarctic.
The Coast Guard is fast-tracking a replacement for the Polar Star. Construction on the new heavy icebreaker is expected to start in 2020, with delivery in 2023, according to Zukunft.
"We just freed up money under this administration to finally invest in heavy icebreakers. We're going to build six, but we're on the fast track to build the first one," Zukunft said Wednesday, speaking before Trump at the academy graduation.
The fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill includes $150 million for the planning and design required to begin construction on the first new heavy icebreaker in 2020. The icebreaker is estimated to cost $1 billion, including design costs.
The Coast Guard, following several studies, plans to build a fleet of six icebreakers, including three medium icebreakers and three heavy icebreakers, with the latter being the priority. That would ensure a permanent icebreaker in the Arctic and Antarctic, respectively.
Icebreakers are seen as vital to ensuring the U.S. can carry out its responsibilities in the Arctic, where sea ice has retreated at record rates, opening up new sea routes.
"Who has sole responsibility for exercising sovereignty in the Arctic region? It's the United States Coast Guard," Zukunft said Thursday. "So that gets us to a point of why we need national assets, icebreakers, to exert sovereignty there."
In remarks before the Center for Strategic and International Studies on May 3, Zukunft warned that with regards to the Arctic, the U.S. is lagging far behind Russia, which he said has "made a strategic statement" in the region by saying "I'm here first, and everyone else, you're going to be playing catch-up for a generation to catch up to me first."
The Trump administration soon will release its full budget for the 2018 fiscal year, which will give a better picture of how the president plans to support the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is the only military service to fall under the Department of Homeland Security; the rest are under the Department of Defense.
Draft budget documents showed a proposal to cut the Coast Guard by $1.3 billion. Those plans reportedly were scrapped in favor of a budget that sustains current funding levels for the Coast Guard at about $9.1 billion.
Zukunft, in speaking to the House appropriations subcommittee Thursday, said that going forward, the Coast Guard will need 5 percent annual growth in its operations and maintenance accounts, and at least $2 billion for major acquisitions "to operate and maintain our assets and preserve our acquisition programs."
The number of Coast Guard personnel also will need to grow. The service will need to bring on another 5,000 active-duty members over the next five years, and restore the 1,100 reserve billets cut by sequestration and budget reductions.
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