WASHINGTON — Lawmakers arrived at few answers Tuesday in a push to figure out what the U.S. Coast Guard plans to do when its dwindling fleet of icebreakers are reduced to none.
Despite bipartisan support for building a new, $1 billion heavy-duty icebreaker for the Arctic, it is unlikely that the remaining heavy-duty icebreaker, the Polar Star, will still be in action by the time a new vessel is built, Alaska Rep. Don Young said Tuesday in a House subcommittee hearing on the Coast Guard's Arctic readiness.
Young wants the Coast Guard to lease a vessel, but has had little success with encouraging the military to bend to the idea.
Testimony from Navy, Coast Guard and other government officials showed a clear consensus that there is a need for new icebreakers. But it will take the better part of a decade to build one, and no answers appeared in how to manage a gap in coverage in that time.
Icebreaker funding is on the horizon
The Senate included the money to build a new icebreaker in a $48 billion defense funding bill after yearslong efforts by Alaska's lawmakers, and President Barack Obama backed the idea during his trip to Alaska in 2015 and in his fiscal year 2017 budget request. The largest hurdle that remains is more about whether Congress will fund the government using those appropriations bills rather than resorting to a continuing resolution that maintains prior funding levels.
Spending bills have been piling up in the Senate
A defense spending bill is held up over a disagreement on spending policy, military construction spending is caught in a fight over spending on the Zika virus, and a commerce spending bill has fallen victim to a fight over gun control.
On Tuesday, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican, faulted Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, for "blocking critical funding to try and gain political leverage," which he called "a disgrace."
Getting the funding "has a ways to go, but it is positive progress," said subcommittee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-California.
But in the meantime, the Polar Star — built in 1978 — does not have full-time capacity to serve the Arctic "due to its age and maintenance needs," Hunter said.
As the Polar Star reaches the end of its service life, the Coast Guard may find itself with no heavy icebreaker, just as activity in the Arctic — shipping, Russian military maneuvers and tourism, if not drilling — increases in the region.
The Coast Guard is joining the Navy in building the ship, given the Navy's larger budget and shipbuilding expertise. The Coast Guard's entire annual fleet budget is closer to the cost of a single icebreaker.
But lawmakers kept asking: What happens in the meantime?
Throughout the hearing, lawmakers repeatedly circled back to discuss the fate of the Crystal Serenity, a massive cruise ship that will make a first-time voyage through the Northwest Passage this summer.
Adm. Charles Michel, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, praised the cruise company's advance planning efforts with the Coast Guard, and also noted that the vessel would spend most of the trip in Canadian waters. "We think they've done pretty good homework," Michel said.
At the hearing, Young noted that during recent drilling tests in the Arctic, Shell used "ice-breaking capable ships" that are privately owned.
"If that could be retrofitted in one year's time, one year and a half — that would … fit that gap" in icebreaker availability, Young said.
"I know you have the proposal on your desk," and that "it's an automatic no. Why?" he asked of the admiral.
"I personally visited that vessel, and we are of the opinion that that vessel is not suitable for military service without substantial retrofit," Michel said — a statement he would repeat again during the hearing.
Young was not pleased with the answer, asking why the Coast Guard can't just hold the ship builder responsible for upgrading the vessel as needed. If builders "can't do the job, you don't pay them," he said.
"You always hated the idea of not owning the ship. But we have a gap here that has to be (filled)," Young said. "How are we going to do it if you don't accept another ship? American built, American manned, American maintained. Why can't you accept that?" he asked.
Michel repeated his answer. Young turned to the chairman and declared the response "a bull—- answer."
"We don't operate nonmilitary vessels," Michel said. The ships "don't just break ice," but "serve national sovereignty," Michel argued. "This is not a pickup game for the Coast Guard," he said, noting that a military vessel is required by international law "for assertion of things like navigation rights."