President Donald Trump pledged Wednesday to build icebreaker ships that the Coast Guard has long sought to be able to navigate polar waterways, but offered no details about how they will be funded or whether his vision differs fundamentally from a plan established during the Obama administration.
Trump, speaking at the Coast Guard Academy commencement in New London, Connecticut, called the sea service "truly vital to the United States armed forces and truly vital to our great country," before zeroing in specifically on the icebreaker mission.
"Out of the five branches of our armed services, it's only the Coast Guard that has the power to break through 21 feet of rock-solid Arctic ice, right?" he said, drawing applause. "You're the only ones. And I'm proud to say that under my administration, as you just heard, we will be building the first new heavy icebreakers the United States has seen in over 40 years. We're going to build many of them."
Trump referred back to comments earlier in the ceremony from Adm. Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard commandant, who credited the Trump administration with funding a new heavy icebreaker.
"We just freed up money under this administration to finally invest in heavy icebreakers," the admiral said. "We're going to build six, but we're on the fast track to build the first one."
The comments come as the administration prepares to release details about its proposed 2018 budget. A draft proposal of the budget obtained in March called for the Coast Guard to be cut 14 percent to $7.8 billion to help pay for Trump's proposed southern border wall, but the idea was later scrapped in favor of level funding of about $9.1 billion.
Icebreakers work by sliding up on top of polar ice, then crushing through it with the weight of their hulls. The United States has four of them – three run by the Coast Guard and one operated by the National Science Foundation – but the ships are decades old and include one, the USCG Polar Sea, that suffered a catastrophic engine failure in 2010 and has been out of service since.
Trump did not promise additional funding Wednesday, but his comments mark a show of support for a mission that Coast Guard officials have said has grown increasingly important in light of climate change, which has opened up more shipping lanes in the Arctic as ice melts. Russia – which already has at least 21 government-operated icebreakers, according to a recent Congressional Research Report – devotes significant resources to the region.
While Zukunft suggested that the Trump administration freed up money for a heavy icebreaker, the project to build one was launched with the Coast Guard's 2013 budget request, according to the CRS report. The project received $15.6 million through 2016, and service officials have planned for a significant escalation in the project this year, with $150 million going to planning and design ahead of construction beginning in 2020.
The Obama administration said in September 2015 that it wanted to expand the icebreaker fleet and accelerate the construction of the first new one. Critics at the time noted that the Coast Guard at that point already had been calling for that expansion for years.
The service's long-term plan currently calls for the construction of three new medium icebreakers, which can crush ice up to 8 feet thick, and three heavy icebreakers, which can crush ice up to 21 feet thick. The current Coast Guard operation icebreakers include the USCG Polar Star, a heavy ice breaker that deploys annually to Antarctica, and the USCG Healy, a medium icebreaker that travels to the Arctic.
Zukunft, speaking in a recent interview in his office, said that adding one new heavy icebreaker would simply "get the service back to status quo," considering that the Polar Sea is out of service. Having six new icebreakers would allow the service to keep one in the Arctic and one in the Antarctic at all times, with others either resetting after returning from a deployment or preparing to go.
The admiral said that if the Polar Star were to get stuck in ice it would be problematic because it is the nation's only heavy icebreaker. If parts could be flown to the ship to repair it in the water, the Coast Guard would pursue that. If that didn't work, Zukunft said, "it would create a very difficult challenge for us" that leads to it being towed during warmer months.
"This could only be done during the summer season in the Antarctic, when the sea ice is at its least, and luck would play a big factor in that," he said. "If it would have happened this year with 70 miles of ice and the Polar Star was beset in ice all the way inside that 70 miles? It would have been very difficult to extract her."
If the ice was too thick for the Coast Guard to use the Healy to free the Polar Star, it would be required to seek help from other nations, the admiral said. Finland has capable ships and would be one potential option, he said.