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January 2017 Issue

Ensuring US Leadership in the Arctic

By Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.)
Chairman, U.S. House Subcommittee on Coast Guard
and Maritime Transportation

In coming years, the Arctic region is expected to see an increase in maritime traffic and serve an even greater strategic importance. With more Arctic shipping routes and increased commerce, nations bordering the Arctic should be prepared to deploy a greater Arctic naval presence. Indeed, countries such as Russia recognize this reality and have invested in a large fleet of icebreakers, with more on the way. Our own country should also recognize the increasing national security implications in the Arctic, but the fact is that we do not have the necessary assets to operate reliably in this region. Our nation currently has two operational icebreakers, the medium icebreaker Healy and heavy icebreaker Polar Star, which, at 40 years old, is serving well past its intended service life. Without increased investment, we will face the unacceptable reality of ceding the Arctic to other nations.

Under the U.S. Coast Guard’s existing acquisition timeline, our nation will not deploy a new heavy icebreaker until 2024 or 2025. And according to the Coast Guard, “The state of our current icebreaker fleet does not offer a viable solution should Polar Star experience a catastrophic mechanical failure. This scenario would leave the nation without heavy icebreaking capability.”

This would be an unacceptable outcome, which is why I have made it among my top priorities as chairman of the House Coast Guard and Maritime Subcommittee to reform the Coast Guard’s acquisition process and think outside the box.

To allow our nation to meet its Arctic mission requirements and ensure there is not a vessel or mission gap, I’ve supported acquisition reforms that have been successfully utilized by the Navy. While the Coast Guard has identified the need, as well as a plan, for the construction of three heavy icebreakers, it proposes using antiquated acquisition methods that will likely delay construction and increase costs. Instead, a heavy icebreaker should be acquired using block buy procurement—a form of multiyear contracting that allows for the purchase of up-front materials, providing for economies of scale and resulting in significant cost savings.

The Coast Guard currently purchases its cutters through a series of annual contracts. Conversely, the Navy has a history of using block buy contracts, presenting the opportunity to accelerate vessel acquisition and increase cost savings in the process. In fact, the Congressional Research Service has determined that, with the acquisition cost of the first polar icebreaker estimated at approximately $1 billion, using block buy authority for a two-ship program could save upward of $100 million and potentially get a second ship into service sooner by allowing for the combined purchase of materials and components. I am especially pleased that the Navy and Coast Guard have formed a joint-program office for icebreaker acquisition, and it’s my hope that the Navy’s extensive ship acquisition experience will inform this critical program.

Speeding up the acquisition of future icebreakers is only one part of the solution to ensure that our nation is able to meet its Arctic objectives. The reality is that, even with these reforms, it will still take years for our country to produce a new icebreaker. In the meantime, our country continues to be left with aging icebreakers that are one mechanical casualty away from denying our country access to the Arctic. For that reason, I am a strong advocate of the Coast Guard supplementing its capabilities with leases of existing icebreakers. In fact, the Coast Guard maintains a list of “Major Icebreakers of the World” that contains 34 icebreakers controlled by United States allies and also includes the U.S.-flagged ship Aiviq—an icebreaking anchor handling tug supply vessel, the only vessel of its kind available for use. According to the Coast Guard, the vessels on this list “have sailed in significant sea ice in either the Arctic or the Antarctic” and have “ice strengthening sufficient for polar ice.” The Coast Guard has confirmed that some of the vessels contained on this list are capable of fulfilling some of the Coast Guard missions. It’s clear that these vessels should be considered and that the Coast Guard must not fail to address short-term capability gaps that may be inevitable without a lease. Going forward, it’s apparent that failure to acquire new icebreaking capability will leave our nation at a distinct disadvantage in the Arctic. That’s an unacceptable outcome, which is why I’ll continue to be a strong advocate for filling existing capability gaps and reforming the acquisition process. In that way, we will get the best value and get new icebreakers into the water as expeditiously as possible in order to defend our country’s sovereignty—a win-win for the taxpayer and the Coast Guard that serves the nation.

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