Arctic sea ice is melting, with potentially devastating effects on polar species and global climate. The loss of sea ice will open up new frontiers for fishing, commerce, transportation, defense, and tourism.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, held a hearing on the Coast Guard’s implementation capabilities in the Arctic to outline the state of play in the region. Ranking Member John Garamendi (CA-3) noted, “Whether or not you believe that the earth’s climate is warming due to increased emissions of man-made greenhouse gasses, that’s not terribly relevant. The physical reality quickly unfolding across the high north and Antarctic continent is.” Worryingly, it is possible that the U.S. is not ready to face these new challenges.
The nations’ icebreaker fleet is a key area of concern that dominated the discussion. Heavy icebreakers are a necessity for the Coast Guard to access the Arctic and support our nation’s maritime, economic, commercial, and national security needs; these ships not only break through sea ice but can accommodate aircraft; a large crew, including scientists; and equipment to support polar missions. While Russia owns 40 icebreakers, with up to a dozen more reportedly in development, the U.S. has only one functioning heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star with a second, the USCGC Polar Sea, out of service since 2010. The other operational icebreaker in the U.S. Coast Guard fleet is also the newest, largest, and most technologically advanced; however, the USCGC Healy is classified as “medium” rather than “heavy” since it does not have as strong of a reinforced hull as the heavy icebreakers.
The committee discussed at length options for increasing fleet size, including reactivating the Polar Sea, leasing or buying icebreakers, and building new ones. Admiral Charles Michel (Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard) asserted that the cost to refurbish the Polar Sea would be more than the $57 million spent from 2010-2012 to overhaul the Polar Star, and an assessment is underway to determine if that is the most judicious action or if the ship should be decommissioned. Congress has taken steps toward procuring or building new icebreakers; the Senate Appropriations Committee-passed Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2017 (S. 3000) would provide $1 billion to build a new heavy icebreaker, the first since 1978. Director Jennifer Grover (Homeland Security and Justice Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office) believes building is the only option, firmly stating that “no heavy icebreaker currently exists for purchase or lease that would meet [the Coast Guard]’s requirements,” an assertion supported by Michael. If a heavy icebreaker is to be constructed, the committee would like it to be built on U.S. soil because of the positive economic impacts. While a heavy icebreaker has not been built in the U.S. since the 1970s, a smaller polar research vessel (the R/V Nathan B. Palmer, operated by the National Science Foundation) and two smaller icebreakers have been, suggesting that American companies have the capability to build the new icebreakers.
Chairman Duncan Hunter (CA-50) has been vocal in his concern that one ship is not enough, even penning an article in the Navy Times. Witnesses at the hearing agreed, with Ms. Heather A. Conley (Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; Center for Strategic and International Studies) noting that the addition of only one new icebreaker does not solve the U.S. Arctic security concerns, and when it comes to polar emergencies, the “U.S. has been living on good luck and borrowed time.” Specialist in Naval Affairs, Ronald O’Rourke (Congressional Research Service), concurred on the insufficiency of one ship, and he outlined the cost benefit (one to two hundred million dollars) of building two polar ice breakers at once instead of separately. The future of Arctic transportation, safety, military security, and other aspects hang in the balance as Congress decides how to best advance U.S. Arctic preparedness.