Senators push for new heavy polar icebreakers

Devin Kelly

Lawmakers from Alaska and Washington have introduced language in a federal defense spending bill that would authorize the building of four new heavy polar icebreakers.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., announced the amendment to the National Defense Spending Bill earlier this week. The item is co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Patty Murray, D-Wash.

According to the language of the amendment, the Navy will be directed to build up to four new heavy icebreakers and then transfer the ships to the U.S. Coast Guard, which takes sole responsibility for polar missions. A hefty price tag accompanies the proposal -- each icebreaker costs about $860 million, said Heather Handyside, a spokeswoman for Begich.

Heavy icebreakers, which clear shipping and supply channels, are seen by proponents as a boost to the maritime industry. Only two are currently in commission, according to a statement from Begich.

In 2011, the Coast Guard announced plans to decommission the heavy icebreaker Polar Star but Begich and Cantwell intervened. Legislation to restore the vessel was signed into law in 2012. After a $57 million overhaul, the Polar Star is slated to be back in service in December.

The amendment comes on the heels of the release of the Pentagon's first Arctic strategy. In a memo last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted the role of shrinking ice caps in increased human access and competition for space and resources.

"With Defense Secretary Hagel announcing last Friday that the nation's military will be very involved in the Arctic region, moving forward towards an Arctic future means icebreakers; this bill would help deliver on that," Murkowski said in a statement.

Reach Devin Kelly at

dkelly@adn.comBy xxx