To Build or Not to Build an Icebreaker? That is the $1 Billion Funding Question.
September 1, 2015
On the second day of his three-day tour of the American Arctic, President Obama announced that the United States will “accelerate the acquisition of new Coast Guard icebreakers … to develop and maintain capacity for year-round access to greater expanses within polar regions.”
This is welcome news. As the largest maritime power in the world, the United States has only two functional icebreakers: the heavy-ice breaker Polar Star, commissioned in 1976 and only recently taken out of mothballs to extend its service for approximately ten years, and the Healy, a medium-strengthened icebreaker commissioned in 2000 and mostly used for scientific research. The United States has a third, heavy icebreaker, the Polar Sea, which is currently in drydock disrepair and has been cannibalized for parts. It is estimated that it will cost upwards of $500 million to extend the life of the Polar Sea for another ten-years.
In July 2012, former Coast Guard Commandant and current U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic Region, Adm. Bob Papp, stated that the Coast Guard’s goal was to have a fleet of three heavy-duty and three medium-duty icebreakers to fulfill its mission in the Arctic and Antarctic region, requiring an investment estimated at $3.2 billion. In May of 2013, the Coast Guard’s Arctic strategy states that “The United States must have adequate icebreaking capability to support research that advances fundamental understanding of the region and its evolution” and that “the Nation must also make a strategic investment in icebreaking capability to enable access to high latitudes over the long-term.”
In June 2013 the Department of Homeland Security affirmed this assessment in its Mission Need Statement (MNS) for a polar icebreaker recapitalization project. It stated: “This Mission Need Statement (MNS) establishes the need for polar icebreaker capabilities provided by the Coast Guard, to ensure that it can meet current and future mission requirements in the polar regions…current requirements and future projections based upon cutter demand modeling, as detailed in the HLMAR (High Latitude Mission Analysis Report), indicate the Coast Guard will need to expand its icebreaking capacity, potentially requiring a fleet of up to six icebreakers (3 heavy and 3 medium) to adequately meet mission demands in the high latitudes…”
Despite the need expressed by both the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security, the political will to fund icebreakers has been absent. In the Coast Guard’s FY2013 budget, the project received $7.609 million, and in FY2014 it received only $2.0 million to begin to assess what the design and construction of a new polar icebreaker would entail. The Coast Guard’s proposed FY2016 budget requests $4 million to continue initial acquisition activities for the icebreaker. Clearly, there is a yawning funding gap between a request for $3.2 billion and receiving $9 million to begin to study the question.
It is estimated that for the United States to construct a single icebreaker it would take ten years and cost approximately $1 billion, keeping in mind that the Coast Guard’s entire budget for FY2016 is $9.96 billion. The American shipyards that build the Polar Star and Healy have closed. U.S. expertise in icebreaking technology has atrophied. It would be more cost-efficient to look for commercial applications or joint procurement opportunities with Finland or Canada but it is unclear whether current U.S. legal provisions will allow a more flexible approach.
Admiral Zukunft, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, has been relentless in his call for additional U.S. icebreaking capabilities. When comparing the current state of U.S. ambition in the Arctic to Russia, Admiral Zukunft stated, “our GDP is at least eight times that of Russia. And yet we say we can’t afford an icebreaker. We just need to make it a priority.” Yet federal agencies – and particularly the Office of Management and Budget -- have all been exceedingly silent on issues related to funding icebreakers. There has been no formal request to Congress. In fact, members of Congress have repeatedly asked the administration to put forward proposals. President Obama’s announcement appears to make icebreakers a federal priority.
But there isn’t just a funding gap; there is a significant timing gap. The Polar Star is on borrowed time; it is unclear whether the administration will seek $500 million to resurrect the Polar Sea. In a best-case scenario, if adequate funding is identified and an interagency agreed tender is produced by 2020, the United States wouldn’t add an icebreaker into its inventory until 2030. What is the proposed interim solution? Borrow? This seems a risky proposition. The U.S. has leased icebreakers, such as the Swedish owned Oden, which had to be returned in 2013 due to severe ice conditions in the Baltic Sea that year.
President Obama’s announcement on accelerating the procurement of U.S. icebreakers is welcome but incomplete. Are we building six icebreakers or one? What will these icebreakers be designed to do? Law enforcement? Economic development? Scientific research? All of the above? What is the solution for the ten-year icebreaking gap?
While icebreakers are needed, they represent only one element of U.S. readiness in the Arctic. Enhanced satellite communications, aviation assets, deep-water ports, and navigational aids are as urgently needed in the American Arctic as icebreakers. The United States needs to prepare itself for a rapidly transforming Arctic region. The time for study and assessment is over. It is time to budget and implement a national Arctic plan.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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