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Sullivan wants new US icebreaker focused on the Arctic, not the Antarctic

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star cruises on the ice edge of the Chukchi Sea north of Wainwright, Alaska, in July 2013. (Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Mooers / U.S. Coast Guard)

The U.S. Coast Guard is on track to have another icebreaker in five years, but how much time the vessel will spend in the Arctic is open question.

Currently, the country’s only heavy icebreaker — the 43 year-old Polar Star — does its work on the other end of the world, returning to its homeport of Seattle each summer for maintenance and repairs. It breaks ice and escorts supply vessels to access the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station research center in Antarctica.

Foundation spokesman Peter West said via email that the 399-foot Polar Star typically starts the trip south shortly after Thanksgiving each year and returns around mid-March from the roughly 11,000-mile roundtrip voyage.

NSF officials anticipate the new 460-foot Polar-class icebreaker will take over the Polar Star’s Antarctic research duties once it is ready, according to West.

“By Presidential Memorandum, the NSF is empowered to reach out to other agencies for cost reimbursable services in support of the (U.S. Antarctic Program, or USAP),” he wrote. “The USGS has the responsibility for the nation’s icebreaking and is committed to the McMurdo Station breakout mission on an annual basis for the foreseeable future.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a meeting with the Journal and Anchorage Daily News on May 28 that the Antarctic policy will likely shift the future icebreaker away from the Arctic-focused missions it should be utilized for.

“I think we’re too focused on Antarctica and not focused on our own sovereign interests here,” Sullivan said.

The policies directing Antarctic support from the Coast Guard are ones he hopes to change, Sullivan said.

“I write the Coast Guard bill. I chair that subcommittee; we’ll see,” he said.

Sullivan chairs the Security Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation panel.

Coast Guard spokesman NyxoLyno Cangemi wrote in response to questions that the Polar Star escorted one cargo ship to the McMurdo Station last year and in 2020 there will be two cargo vessels and one tanker for the icebreaker to escort.

The Polar Star does not currently conduct Arctic missions.

Presidential Memorandum 6646 issued in 1982 by former President Ronald Reagan directs agencies to support the U.S. Antarctic Program, either directly or through logistics and transportation support.

The budget bill passed in February appropriated $655 million to fully-fund one Polar security cutter, or heavy icebreaker, and $20 million for long-lead item items to prepare for building a second.

On April 23 the Department of the Navy awarded a contract to Mississippi shipyard VT Halter Marine for building the vessels. The first is expected to be ready in 2024, and, if funded, the second coming a year later and a third to be delivered in 2027.

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act approved construction of up to six heavy icebreakers, but Congress still has to appropriate the funding for building most of them.

Alaska’s congressional delegation and numerous Arctic policy experts have stressed the need for the U.S. to upgrade its icebreaking capability to keep up with many other countries — notably Russia and China — that are preparing to have a large presence in Arctic waters as sea ice continues to shrink each year.

Cangemi noted other laws compel the Coast Guard to generally support scientific research and the agency “is fully committed to supporting the USAP mission until directed otherwise. Diverting USCG resources, specifically, Polar Star, away from the Antarctic mission would require an order from the White House,” he wrote.

This year, the NSF reimbursed the Coast Guard $49,311 per day for use of the Polar Star. The Coast Guard was reimbursed nearly $33,000 per day for use of the medium-duty icebreaker Healy, which supports Arctic research, according to Cangemi.

The Polar Star had a fire in its garbage incinerator while on the McMurdo support mission in February; the incident was contained and it is now back in Seattle for repairs.

The icebreakers are part of a larger nationwide effort to recapitalize the Coast Guard with new vessels and aircraft.

Sullivan noted that the Coast Guard is in the process of adding four medium-sized fast response cutters to Alaska bases — two in Kodiak, one in Seward and one in Sitka — in addition to the two already based in Ketchikan.

Additional patrol vessels will be stationed in Petersburg and Juneau as well, according to an April 2018 letter to Sullivan from former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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