Coast Guard takes steps to acquire long-sought icebreaker for Arctic

WASHINGTON -- The Coast Guard inched closer last week to acquiring a new heavy-duty icebreaker for the Arctic.

Admiral Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the Coast Guard, announced Wednesday that the military was beginning discussions with ship architects and builders to advance early stages of acquiring a new icebreaker to supplement the nation's dwindling fleet. The Coast Guard also released a draft wish list of sorts, detailing its hopes for a schedule, design requirements and a long list of questions for the shipbuilding industry. The Coast Guard will have an industry meeting day in March to discuss options.

But realizing the dreams of a modern U.S. icebreaker fleet depends upon a large missing piece of the puzzle: money.

The Coast Guard would like six icebreakers; it has two that are working and one that is out of commission in a shipyard. But new ones will cost roughly a billion dollars each, and convincing Congress to fork over the cash has been difficult thus far. In fiscal year 2015, the Coast Guard's entire construction budget was $1 billion.

But supporters are hopeful, especially given a pledge by President Barack Obama during his recent trip to Alaska to accelerate the process of shoring up the Coast Guard's icebreaker fleet.

The White House is expected to release its 2017 budget proposal Feb. 9. But in the end, Congress holds the purse strings.

"An announcement is good, but what you really need is the money to go behind the announcement," Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said at a forum held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where Zukunft made his announcement Wednesday.


"I have urged the president, I have asked the Office of Management and Budget to ensure that this 2017 budget request has the adequate funding for new heavy icebreakers," she said, emphasizing the "s" on "icebreakers."

"I'm trying to figure out how we make this happen," said Murkowski, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Zukunft appeared optimistic that the tide is turning on Capitol Hill in terms of convincing non-Alaska lawmakers of the importance of an icebreaker.

He and others have made the argument that increased melting of sea ice has opened the Arctic to major potential increases in traffic -- for shipping, tourism and oil drilling. That exacerbates the need for icebreakers for safety and environmental work.

Earlier in the week, the commandant was on the Hill to meet with members of Congress, and "most of that time was consumed about talking about the Arctic and about icebreakers," he said.

He was there, he said, to thank members for the appropriations bill passed in December that offered "our largest acquisition budget in Coast Guard history," he said. The bill included $1.3 billion for vessels, including $7 million for work on a new polar icebreaker.

Since 2012, the Coast Guard has garnered more than $20 million in appropriations to carry out initial activities aimed at acquiring new icebreakers, according to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service.

The Coast Guard currently has two working icebreakers, the heavy-duty Polar Star, commissioned in 1976, and the medium-duty Healy, commissioned in 2000. The Healy is used primarily for scientific missions. The second heavy icebreaker, the Polar Sea, has been out of commission since 2011.

Russia, meanwhile, has an icebreaker fleet of 41, with more on the way.

The medium-sized Healy "does not have the ability to provide year-round access to the Arctic. The Russians have this capability," Murkowski said, noting that a new Russian icebreaker recently completed transit of the Northern Sea route in 7 1/2 days.

"As we struggle to add one additional heavy icebreaker to our fleet, I can't help but look to Russia with a little bit of envy here. They're in the process of constructing 14 new icebreakers of various designs and use," she said.

The Coast Guard has been trying to draw in other parts of the federal government for a jointly funded effort, but the Navy and other organizations haven't been willing to shift funding.

The document released this week is aimed at leveraging the idea of funding icebreakers through a variety of options, including leasing or using the Navy's much more substantial $18 billion construction budget. The document includes the needs of other parts of the government, including the Interior Department, the Commerce Department, which regulates fisheries, and scientific agencies.

Just how the Coast Guard would acquire an icebreaker -- if it got the cash -- remains undecided. Officials are considering leasing, buying and upgrading, and each option has its own fans and detractors.

Zukunft said he hopes to remain ahead of the game by preparing even before funding is in place.

"We're hiring the acquisition staff … in hopes that we will have an appropriation in 2017, which buys me a year, a year and a half at minimum, to bring in a workforce to design and then acquire a polar icebreaker, or to lease one, or if we need to restore an icebreaker that's currently laid up -- the Polar Sea," Zukunft said.

"I want to make sure I have stable requirements that I can then turn to industry and say, 'This is what we need,' and we're not going to change our mind halfway into this process and then realize, 'Oh, we forgot to add on this this and this,'" he said.


The wish list

In its draft package posted on this week, the Coast Guard details what it hopes to get in a new icebreaker.

The cutter should be able to handle air temperatures from minus-72 degrees Fahrenheit to 114 degrees, and sea temperatures from 28.8 degrees to 87 degrees. It needs to cut through ice at least 6 feet thick while moving at a continuous speed of three knots, and break through ridged ice 21 feet thick.

The ship would need to be broadly equipped: It could be deployed for 80 days with 100 to 150 people on board, have room for landing aircraft, and be strong enough to tow other boats. It should have a broad range of scientific capabilities, from ocean mapping to biological sampling, according to the notice.

It would "employ four removable .50 caliber machine guns," and have medical, dining, classroom, gym and laundry facilities, as well as an on-ship barber shop.

The Coast Guard wants a ship designed to last 30 years.

The Coast Guard has identified several missions for a potential vessel, and they aren't all in the Arctic. The icebreaker would also have responsibilities in Antarctica, which would include defense operations.

"What's critical about Antarctica -- I can't share in this room, but we have national strategic infrastructure in the Antarctic," Zukunft said.

In the Arctic, the ship would have scientific, environmental, defense and public service missions, including "an emergent mass search and rescue and marine environmental protection incident when a cruise ship runs aground in ice infested waters."


That concern is focused on the near future: Next summer, the cruise ship Crystal Serenity will ferry as many as 1,000 passengers through the Northwest Passage for an Arctic experience that costs more than $20,000 a person. More of that type are likely, Zukunft said.

The Coast Guard mission in Alaska would also include "fisheries law enforcement operations" and navigational research.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.