U.S. needs more icebreakers to keep watch in Arctic

It was great to be back in Alaska last week to recognize Coast Guard men and women who have performed acts of heroism in The Last Frontier. A Coast Guard presence in Alaska is a natural complement to the enterprising and adventurous spirit of Alaskans. As we celebrate the Coast Guard's 226th anniversary, it is fitting to reflect that the Coast Guard has been present in Alaska from its start.  In 1867, when we purchased the territory, it was the Revenue Cutter Lincoln that carried the U.S. delegation to Sitka for the transfer-of-power ceremony.

We were here then and we need to be here now. Yet, the Coast Guard's heavy icebreaker inventory – our entire national capability – is left to just a single operational vessel, Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. This year, the ship turned 40.

Polar Star is the only ship in service with the power and icebreaking capability required for assured year-round access to both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. In more certain terms, the U.S. is one engineering casualty away from being unable to protect national interests, preserve our sovereignty and respond in the polar regions.

[Young questions how the U.S. will manage without an icebreaker.]

For comparative measure, when I received my commission in 1977, the Coast Guard had seven polar icebreakers. Today, the Russian Federation operates 41 polar icebreakers, with at least 11 more planned or under construction.

This May, I was aboard Polar Star to recognize its crew for their ingenuity in repairing their ship, battered by decades of polar service. The very day I was aboard Polar Star, halfway across the world, Russia launched what will become the world's largest nuclear icebreaker. The People's Republic of China, a non-Arctic nation, just announced they will begin construction of a polar icebreaker by the end of the year.

[Congress takes a big step toward funding a new $1 billion Arctic icebreaker.]

The need for icebreakers – and with that, assured access – is only becoming more important as seasonally receding sea ice has made the Arctic increasingly accessible to shipping and traffic. In just six days, cruise ship Crystal Serenity is scheduled for a historic voyage to the high North, becoming the largest cruise ship ever to transit the Northwest Passage. Initial planning has begun for two more voyages next year. Additionally, the changing maritime environment is attracting resource exploration in areas previously inaccessible. At the conflux of these trends, our eye is on advancing safety and improved maritime domain awareness.

America's Coast Guard has executed Arctic missions for more than 150 years, and we have deployed to support U.S. interests and treaty obligations in Antarctica since 1955. Now, as then, our mission is to ensure the safety, security and stewardship of the polar regions. Acquiring new heavy icebreakers is paramount in continuing this mission.

We are committed to working with the administration and Congress to find solutions to fund, build and launch America's next heavy icebreakers. We are also partnering with the Navy and will consider innovative means to provide global assured access to the Arctic and Antarctica. The acquisitions and partnerships we make today will impact our nation's interests for decades to come. For the Arctic, that future is now.

Adm. Paul F. Zukunft is commandant of the United States Coast Guard.