At last spring’s Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony, President Trump pledged that his administration would deliver on an item that had long been on the military branch’s wish list: polar icebreakers. “We’re going to build many of them,” he said.
The omnibus spending bill Trump signed into law 10 months later doesn’t quite live up to that claim. But it does provide the necessary funding to keep the Coast Guard on track for the first time in 40 years to build a new heavy icebreaker—a specialized ship that has taken on greater importance from both a commercial and defense standpoint as activity has picked up in the Arctic and Antarctic seas.
Amid concerns that the U.S. icebreaker program is falling behind those of other countries, the massive spending bill Congress sent to Trump’s desk included a $150 million allocation from the Navy’s budget to continue the acquisition process for a new ship. That’s on top of $19 million from the Coast Guard’s budget and $190 million in funds from the last fiscal year for a polar icebreaker that costs upwards of $1 billion and takes several years to build.
“It’s been in the works for a long time. Now that the budgets are going up, I think there’s some money to put towards this requirement that wasn’t there before,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is enough money to get the program started in a serious way.”
The Coast Guard currently operates just one functioning heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which was built in 1976 and was designed to be in service for only 30 years. Its sister ship, the Polar Sea, was constructed in 1978 and has been out of commission since an engine failure in 2010. A medium icebreaker called Healy rounds out a fleet that once consisted of as many as eight ships.
Meanwhile, Russia and China have increased their presence in the Arctic as the warming climate has made the region’s natural resources more readily available. Between the government and private companies, Russia has 41 icebreakers at its disposal, with another 11 on the way in the next few years. And China is now eyeing the area, with plans to add a second icebreaker to its fleet in 2019.
Adm. Paul Zukunft, the commandment of the Coast Guard, has said the branch will ultimately need three heavy icebreakers, which can crack through ice up to 21 feet thick, and three medium icebreakers, which can crack through ice up to eight feet thick. For now, though, the Coast Guard will have to settle for just one.
The first round of icebreaker funding, according to experts, is typically used to conduct studies, design the ship, and in some cases acquire long-lead-time materials. Now, the Coast Guard should have enough money to move into the advanced procurement stage.
In order to accomplish its goal of completing construction of a new icebreaker by fiscal 2023, the Coast Guard began accepting contract bids from shipbuilders in early March. The Coast Guard is also requesting another $750 million in its budget request for the next fiscal year, which would likely be more than enough funding for one icebreaker. But it’s unclear if Congress would authorize that much money in one budget cycle.
Polar icebreakers have been a pet issue for several lawmakers on Capitol Hill, particularly those from Alaska and Washington state. Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska introduced an amendment to the annual defense spending bill last year that would have authorized up to six new polar icebreakers. The final version of the National Defense Authorization Act allowed for just one. Sullivan told National Journal he was “disappointed” that the omnibus didn’t include more icebreaker funding.
“Everybody talks a big game on it. It never happens,” he said. “We talk about it, we talk about it, we talk about it. You can’t even build a quarter of an icebreaker with that amount of money.”
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, where all three U.S. icebreakers dock, took a more optimistic view, saying the new funds mark only the beginning of the process.
“We need to revitalize our icebreaker fleet, and this provision in the omnibus is the start of recapitalization for the icebreaker program,” Cantwell said in an emailed statement. “It is critical the United States takes further steps to strengthen our icebreaking capacity—not only for the sake of our national security but to fully harness the economic opportunities that exist in the Polar Regions, as well as ensure environmental protection.”
Advocates for new icebreakers often point to the disparity between Russia and the U.S. But Magnus Nordenman, the director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said Russia needs far more icebreakers than the U.S. because its longest coastline is the Arctic and roughly 20 percent of its GDP derives from the region.
“We should have no illusions that we need six [icebreakers] to compete with the Russians,” Nordenman said. “We need six for our own very good reasons that have nothing to do with Russia.”
Still, Cancian said this new icebreaker funding will send an important signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. is going to be more active in the Arctic.
“The broader narrative is about activity in the Arctic and the renewal of competition in the Arctic,” he said.