Although the U.S. is an Arctic nation, it’s about to spend the next two years without a heavy icebreaker. The Coast Guard recently confirmed that the Polar Sea will be decommissioned this year, with her crew being transferred to the Polar Star. The latter boat will be undergoing repairs until 2013, leaving the U.S. without a working heavy icebreaker for two years. The USCGC Healy, a light icebreaker, is still in good working order, but it cannot plow through thick winter sea ice.

On February 16, Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, the former chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, gave a talk at the Juneau World Affairs Council, emphasizing the need for new icebreakers to be built. He noted that the country has not built new ones since the 1960s. The Polar Star and the Polar Sea “have been working hard for 30 years, 40 years, and they’re really on their last legs,”  he observed.

Last October, in an interview with the Navy Times, Coast Guard Admiral Bob Papp said, “We need icebreakers up [in the Arctic], and right now our icebreakers are in a sorry state.” He added, “They need replacement or very thorough renovation to allow the United States to sustain an active presence and support our sovereignty up there.”

Yet Congress and the federal government are ignoring these pleas for more money in the Coast Guard’s budget for operations in the Arctic. With an estimated price tag of $800 million to $1 billion, a new icebreaker is a hard pill to swallow for a Congress ostensibly focused on reeling in spending. It’s even harder to advocate considering that Alaska, the only state with an Arctic coastline, only has one representative and two senators in Congress. But as Treadwell noted, it’s not an issue of whether there is enough money to spend on icebreakers – there is. It’s simply a matter of allocation, and right now, the Arctic doesn’t seem to be a priority that is worth such a large share of the budget.

On January 12, Papp said in his Coast Guard Update to the Surface Navy Association, “Polar ice breakers are costly to build, and capital intensive to operate. But, if we want to possess the capability to operate in the Arctic, we need to resource it correctly. Other Arctic nations are already staking their claims and expanding their operational capabilities. Our National Strategy seemingly directs us to be doing the same thing. However, our resources are not synchronized with our strategy.

Indeed, in section F.4.b. of NSPD-66, the National Security Presidential Directive issued by former President George W. Bush regarding American strategy in the Arctic, noted that the U.S. shall: “Commensurate with the level of human activity in the region, establish a risk-based capability to address hazards in the Arctic environment.  Such efforts shall advance work on pollution prevention and response standards; determine basing and logistics support requirements, including necessary airlift and icebreaking capabilities; and improve plans and cooperative agreements for search and rescue.”

Perhaps, then, we have met the strategy’s recommendations, as it merely says that we should “determine” icebreaking capabilities. Whether we should actually build icebreakers is left unsaid. Because of this, however, the U.S. government doesn’t face the problem of unfulfilled promises, in contrast to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, which reneged on its plan to purchase three icebreakers.

News Links

“Treadwell calls on U.S. to make use of the Arctic,” Juneau Empire

“Cutter, shore upgrades in C.G. budget request,” Navy Times

“Icebound: Polar icebreakers frozen in the federal budget,” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

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