President Barack Obama announced “new investments” in the Arctic, including acceleration of the program to build a new heavy icebreaker for the Coast Guard, plans to build a larger fleet of U.S. icebreakers, and exploring the expansion of port facilities on the North Slope during his trip to Alaska this week.
“Today, in part because we haven’t been reinvesting, although we technically have three, operationally we really only have two, and only one heavy icebreaker. Just to give you a sense of contrast, Russia has about 40, and 11 icebreakers either planned or under construction.”
The Coast Guard’s icebreaker “fleet” at present consists of the heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Star, the oldest ship in the icebreaker fleet, USCGC Healy, which is newer but lacks the heavy icebreaking capability of the Polar Star, and USCGC Mackinaw, a Great Lakes icebreaker. Some smaller Coast Guard tugs have icebreaking capability, but are used only for thinner ice lying in harbors and inland rivers. Polar Star’s sister ship Polar Sea was laid up in 2010 after five of her six diesel engines failed, and while Congress talks of reactivating her, without sufficient funding she is unlikely to operate again.
Polar Star only returned to service in late 2013, having herself been in commission but not operational since 2006. In the seven-year interim, the United States had to contract out heavy icebreaking services to other nations. The Coast Guard has provided the nation’s polar icebreaking capability since 1965, and, as the sole operator and custodian of the fleet, has been responsible for much of the cost of operating the ships, supported in part by partners such as the National Science Foundation.
“These icebreakers are examples of something that we need to get online now. They can’t wait. And I’m looking forward to trying to work with Congress to make that happen,” Obama concluded.
“After World War II, we had seven icebreakers – four under the Navy, three under the Coast Guard,” Obama said during a speech in Seward, Alaska, on Wednesday. “Today, in part because we haven’t been reinvesting, although we technically have three, operationally we really only have two, and only one heavy icebreaker. Just to give you a sense of contrast, Russia has about 40, and 11 icebreakers either planned or under construction.”
“Now, in light of the changes that are going to be taking place, and the fact that we’re going to be seeing more commercial vessels going through the Arctic, even if we’re on top of the climate change issues, some of the change is already happening and is going to be inevitable. It’s important that we are prepared so that whether it’s for search-and-rescue missions, whether it’s for national security reasons, whether it’s for commercial reasons, that we have much greater capabilities than we currently have,” the president said in his speech.
“So one of the things that I’m announcing today is a proposal to accelerate the construction of at least one additional heavy icebreaker, and to work with Congress to make sure that we are producing a sufficient fleet to meet our economic, commercial, maritime, and national security needs.
“We think that we should be able to generate some bipartisan support, although it’s going to be a lot easier to do if we are not continuing to labor under the burdens of sequester that threaten our domestic priorities and investments, but also burden our military and our national security long-term investments,” Obama said.