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Lawmakers protest plans to cut funding for Coast Guard icebreaker



Polar Star
Guard icebreaker Polar Star opens a channel to McMurdo Station in
Antarctica for the supply ship Ocean Giant, January 26,

Petty Officer 1st Class George
Degener/US Coast Guard

  • The Coast Guard has been pushing to build new heavy
    polar icebreakers for years.
  • Money was included in the Homeland Security
    Department’s most recent budget request to build the service’s
    next icebreaker, but the House cut that funding.
  • Democratic lawmakers are pushing back, saying a lack of
    icebreakers puts the US at a disadvantage to great-power

The Homeland Security Appropriations Act draft that emerged from
the House of Representatives this week lacked the $750 million
that the Homeland Security Department requested to design and
build the Coast Guard’s first new heavy polar icebreaker in over
40 years — and Democratic lawmakers are pushing back.

In a letter addressed to Appropriations Committee chairman Rep.
Rodney Frelinghuysen and Rep. Kevin Yoder, chairman of the
Homeland Security subcommittee, House Democrats criticized the
bill’s exclusion of the $750 million icebreaker request and of
funding requested for the Coast Guard’s 12th national-security
cutter, as well as a $10 million cut to the service’s research
and development budget.

The bill excludes those funds “while wasting a staggering $4.9
billion on a border wall and increasing the Immigration and
Customs Enforcement budget by $328 million,” according to the
letter, composed by Rep. John Garamendi and signed by seven other
Democratic lawmakers.

Polar Start icebreaker
Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star plows through ice in the

US Coast

“We urge you in the strongest possible terms to reconsider this
misallocation of resources,” which would undermine the Coast
Guard’s mission and “place our nation at a distinct economic,
geopolitical, and national security disadvantage for decades to
come,” the letter adds.

The Coast Guard’s underwhelming icebreaker fleet has been a point
of contention for some time. The service currently has one medium
polar icebreaker, the Healy, and one heavy polar icebreaker, the
Polar Star. Another heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Sea, is out
of service and is used for parts to keep the Polar Star running.

The 42-year-old Polar Star, which was refurbished in 2012, is
well past its 30-year service life but remains the only ship the
Coast Guard has to support year-round access to the Antarctic and
Arctic regions — during a trip to McMurdo Station in Antarctica
earlier this year, the Star’s crew battled engine failures and

Former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft has said the
Polar Star is “literally on life support.”

Efforts to add to the Guard’s icebreaker fleet have been underway
for some time. The National Defense Authorization Act called for
up to six more polar-class icebreakers. In late 2017, the Coast
Guard and the Navy released a joint draft request for proposal to
deliver the next heavy polar
by 2023, with an option to construct two more of

Russia icebreaker Yamal
icebreaker Yamal during the removal of manned drifting station
North Pole 36, August 2009.

floyd88/Wikimedia Commons

A number of US officials, including the Democratic
representatives who signed Garamendi’s letter, have said a small
Coast Guard fleet puts the US at a disadvantage in the Arctic,
where receding ice is opening new areas for shipping and resource
exploration, attracting the interest of rival powers like
Russia and China.

“We are woefully unprepared for the reality of rising global
temperatures and melting sea ice,” the letter says, noting that
Russia has 41 icebreakers that are “far superior in capability
and technology.”

The Congressional Research Service has reported that Russia has
46 total icebreakers — including four operational heavy polar
icebreakers and 16 medium polar icebreakers, five of which are
for use in the Baltic Sea.

The US’s five total icebreakers are also outstripped by Finland,
which has 10 total icebreakers, and by Canada and Sweden, both of
which have seven.

China has fewer total icebreakers than the US, and the ones it
has are not heavy icebreakers. But those ships have successfully
traversed the existing Arctic passages, and Beijing recently started the bidding
process to build a nuclear-powered icebreaker — the first
nuclear-powered surface ship in its inventory.

Garamendi and his colleagues are not the only legislators who
have emphasized the emerging significance of the Arctic.

Coast Guard cutter Healy breaks ice to support of scientific
research in the Arctic Ocean.

Coast Guard

Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter said at a hearing in June that it
seemed “really myopic and
” for the Defense Department to exclude the
Arctic from its latest National Defense Strategy report. Defense
Secretary Jim Mattis “talked about everywhere on Earth basically
except for the Arctic,” Hunter said.

Some have argued that diminishing sea ice will reduce the need for
icebreakers to open sea lanes, particularly as newer cargo ships
with sturdier hulls take sail. Others have said the greater
threat posed by Russia comes from its navy,
particularly its Northern Fleet, which is growing in both size
and sophistication.

Other experts have said that the US’s focus on other threats,
like North Korea and Iran, have drawn both attention and
resources away from the space that has opened in the Arctic in
recent years put the US at a disadvantage.

“The emergence of a new ocean did not fit into the budget,”
Heather Conley, an Arctic expert at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, told The Washington Examiner
in June. “Now we’re behind.”

“In our national-security strategy we call Russia and China our
great-power competitors,” Conley added. “Well, they are very
invested in the Arctic and growing.”

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