WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate passed its annual defense authorization bill Wednesday, directing more than $250 million in military spending to Alaska and directing the Navy to procure a new Arctic icebreaker.
The $716 billion National Defense Authorization Act sets the defense plan for fiscal year 2019, which begins in September. The Senate passed the conference report, which combined House and Senate versions of the bill, and now heads to President Donald Trump for his signature.
Defense authorization bills have directed $1.3 billion to Alaska for construction, missile defense and F-35 fighter jets in the last 3 1/2 years, according to Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, who sits on the Armed Services Committee. He touted this year's authorizations as a boon for Alaska's economy.
Sullivan was part of the conference committee that negotiated a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the bill. It was there that he was able to secure the icebreaker provision, which was jettisoned from last year's bill during conference.
The bill would procure a single icebreaker via the Navy, but it would also authorize the Coast Guard to "enter into one or more contracts for the procurement of up to five additional polar-class icebreaker vessels," according to the conference report.
How to procure an icebreaker has been more controversial than whether to do it. The Coast Guard has not bought a new icebreaker since the early 1970s, and the cost of building one is roughly as much as the Coast Guard's entire annual shipbuilding budget — $1 billion. That makes funding difficult to get through Congress.
Last year, Sullivan included a provision allowing purchase of six polar-class heavy icebreakers in the FY18 authorization bill "and it got stripped out of the conference," he said.
Currently, the U.S. has just two polar icebreakers in working order, one heavy-duty ship and one medium-duty research vessel. Reports indicate Russia has more than 40 icebreakers, and more in the works.