Mark Collins – POTUS’ US Coast Guard Icebreakers Never Never Land (and Canada’s)

President Obama has just made a lot of Arctic noise on his oh so green visit to Alaska (first ever by a sitting US president)–but here’s a reality check on one aspect:

Opinion: Will Call for Icebreaker Make a Difference?

The White House issued a new call Tuesday [Sept. 1] to replace the US Coast Guard’s tiny two-ship icebreaker fleet, proposing to move the planned 2022 acquisition of one ship to 2020. The administration, in a fact sheet released on the White House web site, also supports “additional icebreakers,” although no number was cited.

The proposal is the latest in a long series of nebulous, the-Russians-have-more-so-we-need-more calls from US officials for ships that still have no defined purpose. The White House said the heavy icebreakers are needed to “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.” But that’s a long way from saying exactly how the ships would manage those goals.

The Coast Guard is in the early stages of a new heavy polar icebreaker acquisition program. According to the service’s web site, the work includes developing a formal mission need statement, a concept of operations, and an operational requirements document. Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, said earlier this year the service needs three heavy and three medium icebreakers to cover the polar regions, but noted there was no clear path to creating the ships. There has been no government commitment to a six-ship icebreaker fleet.

The Department of Homeland Security, parent organization of the Coast Guard, has not signed off on how the single ship would be paid for. The Coast Guard said a “whole-of-government” approach is necessary, implying that funding would be needed from other agencies. Congress routinely asks US Navy officials what they’re doing about buying an icebreaker, but the Navy replies – rightly – it’s a Coast Guard mission.

Obama leaves open the question of funding, calling on Congress only “to work with the administration to provide sufficient resources to fund these critical investments.” The Hill also refrains from proposing specific funding sources…


The United States’ Need for a New Icebreaker Doesn’t Really Have Much to Do With Russia

Lawson Brigham, a professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said too much has been made of the disparity between Russian and U.S. assets — and specifically the popular comparison of Moscow’s 40 icebreakers and America’s two…

“If we had 10 icebreakers, what the hell would we be doing with them, anyway?” said Brigham. “But the numbers of them don’t relate at all to a combat capability or power — it relates to national interest.”

The number of ships sailing through Arctic waters has fallen off since its high of 70 in 2013. Only 31 sailed through the Arctic from Europe to Asia in 2014. An American-flagged ship has never used the route. But as the ice continues to recede [on verra], traffic will doubtless rebound. It has been steadily rising for years in areas like the Bering Strait, and mining, shipping, and tourism are all on the rise throughout the arctic…

Whilst at twitter:




US “Coast Guard Working With Canadians, Finns on Future Icebreaker Design”

Meanwhile the Canadian Coast Guard is getting only one new icebreaker, sometime next decade:

The Great Canadian National Shipbuilding Procurement Screw-Up (aka NSPS), Icebreaker Section, Part 2

Just look at the age of the CCG’s fleet of larger icebreakers–the youngest was built in 1987, some 28 years ago. ‘Nuff said about this government’s commitment to core federal responsibilities.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


17 thoughts on “Mark Collins – POTUS’ US Coast Guard Icebreakers Never Never Land (and Canada’s)”

  1. Progress on new USCG icebreaker–but will full Senate and House go along?

    US Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran has revealed that $1bn is recommended in navy shipbuilding funds to procure the first US Coast Guard-operated icebreaker in 25 years.

    The funding for the Polar Icebreaker Recapitalization Project is included in the US FY2017 Defense Appropriations Bill.

    Cochran said: “Our FY2017 defence funding bill makes a critical investment in the long-delayed expansion of the US icebreaker fleet.
    “The US needs the capability to have year-round access to Polar regions.”

    “We must take assertive action to provide the vessels needed to protect American national security and economic interests in the Arctic region.

    “The US needs the capability to have year-round access to Polar regions.”

    The funding bill is expected to allow early construction to start as proposed by US President Barack Obama last year to move the planned icebreaker construction from 2022 to 2020…

    Currently, the US operates one heavy vessel and one medium ship, one of which has been in service for 40 years.

    Commissioned in 1976, the US heavy icebreaker christened Polar Star measures 399ft-long and has exceeded its 30-year service life. The second heavy icebreaker, Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea has been inactive since 2011.’

    Mark Collins

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