What Happened to America’s Most Important Arctic Ships?

The nation’s fleet of ice-cutting ships is getting older, and congressional action to modernize it isn’t moving at breakneck speed.

National Journal
Marina Koren
July 11, 2014, 5:15 a.m.

The U.S. Coast Guard is fa­cing a di­lemma at the North Pole.

The ser­vice’s fleet of icebreak­ers, ships de­signed to nav­ig­ate and cut through ice-covered wa­ters in the Arc­tic and Ant­arc­tic re­gions, is get­ting older. The ves­sels them­selves are slowly de­teri­or­at­ing, and by 2020, nav­al ex­perts say the coun­try’s icebreak­ing cap­ab­il­it­ies will run out.

The power­ful ships, which can break through ice up to 6 feet thick, mon­it­or sea traffic, con­duct sci­entif­ic re­search, and carry out search-and-res­cue mis­sions for oth­er na­tion’s ships at both ends of the world. Their pres­ence alone al­lows the U.S. de­fend its na­tion­al se­cur­ity, eco­nom­ic, and en­vir­on­ment­al in­terests in the Arc­tic re­gion, whose vast nat­ur­al re­sources have sev­er­al coun­tries vy­ing for more con­trol.

The Coast Guard cur­rently has four po­lar icebreak­ers. The Po­lar Star, com­mis­sioned in 1976, was re­act­iv­ated in late 2012, after spend­ing eight years get­ting re­pairs for worn-out mo­tors. The Po­lar Sea, com­mis­sioned in 1977, has been docked in Seattle since 2011, in­op­er­at­ive be­cause of en­gine prob­lems.

A third icebreak­er, the 14-year-old Healy, has less ice-cut­ting cap­ab­il­ity; it mostly sup­ports re­search. The na­tion’s fourth and fi­nal icebreak­er is the Nath­aniel B. Palmer, a small re­search ves­sel built for the Na­tion­al Sci­ence Found­a­tion in 1992.

Be­cause of their speed and strength, the po­lars Star and Sea are the most cru­cial ves­sels of the U.S. pres­ence in the po­lar re­gions. But both are sev­er­al years bey­ond their in­ten­ded life ser­vice of 30 years, and Coast Guard of­fi­cials are un­sure how much life the Po­lar Star has left. A Coast Guard study in 2011 found that the mil­it­ary ser­vice needs at least three act­ive, heavy-duty icebreak­ers to prop­erly carry out its North Pole du­ties. For the next few years, if noth­ing changes, it will have only one.

The timeline for get­ting a brand new icebreak­er ap­pears to be less cer­tain than ever. In its budget sub­mis­sion for fisc­al 2013, the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment said it planned to award a con­struc­tion con­tract for the ship with­in the next five years. In its sub­mis­sion for fisc­al 2015, there’s no men­tion of a con­struc­tion con­tract at all.

A Janu­ary 2011 re­port from the DHS in­spect­or gen­er­al found that the Coast Guard “does not have the ne­ces­sary budget­ary con­trol” over its po­lar icebreak­ers, “nor does it have a suf­fi­cient num­ber of icebreak­ers to ac­com­plish its mis­sions in the po­lar re­gions.”

The budget­ary con­trol lies with Con­gress, which must de­term­ine how to mod­ern­ize the Coast Guard’s icebreak­er fleet: re­pair the ships, or build new ones? But the push to ad­dress the aging fleet isn’t ex­actly mov­ing at break­neck speed. A House reau­thor­iz­a­tion bill for Coast Guard spend­ing for the next two years passed in April. A Sen­ate ver­sion, which in­cludes fund­ing for re­act­iv­at­ing the Po­lar Sea, re­mains in com­mit­tee. Late last month, Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and John Gara­mendi, D-Cal­if., wrote a let­ter to the Coast Guard, ask­ing the ser­vice to re­act­iv­ate the Po­lar Sea so the U.S. doesn’t fall be­hind in the Arc­tic.

Re­pair­ing and re­act­iv­at­ing the Po­lar Sea for an­oth­er sev­en to 10 years of ser­vice would take three years and cost about $100 mil­lion. A new icebreak­er de­signed to last 30 years would cost $852 mil­lion. In its latest budget pro­pos­al, the Coast Guard re­ques­ted $6 mil­lion for a pre­lim­in­ary plan to ac­quire a new icebreak­er. Last year, it was gran­ted just $2 mil­lion for the pro­ject.

In March, Adm. Robert Papp, then the com­mand­ant of the Coast Guard, told Con­gress, “It’s go­ing to be tough to fit a bil­lion-dol­lar icebreak­er in our five-year plan without dis­pla­cing oth­er things.”

No coun­try has yet laid full claim to the Arc­tic re­gion, which is home to 15 per­cent of the world’s oil and a third of its un­dis­covered nat­ur­al gas. But the U.S. is about to gain a lot more re­spons­ib­il­ity there, thanks to its turn as the chair of the Arc­tic Coun­cil, a for­um of po­lar na­tions, next year. A young and cap­able fleet of icebreak­ers would cer­tainly come in handy then.

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