Lawmakers Question Zukunft on OPC Fleet, Icebreaker Funding

By:  SeaPower - John C. Marcario

The Coast Guard’s Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) platform is expected to be the most expensive program in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) history, but one lawmaker questioned if it’s worth building.

The OPC is replacing the aging 210-and 270-foot medium-endurance cutter fleet and one of its main responsibilities will be drug and migrant interdiction. In 2014, the Coast Guard said it was able to interdict only 20 percent of the drugs flowing into the country.

During an April 28 Senate Science, Commerce & Transportation oceans, atmosphere, fisheries and coast guard oversight subcommittee hearing, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said he was concerned that the OPC would not be able to make that much of a difference in increasing that percentage.

“Are we just treading water?” Schatz said.

He added that the Coast Guard may need to reconsider its acquisition strategy, and production of the OPC, if it cannot guarantee an increase in drug interdiction numbers.

The Coast Guard, which is overseen by DHS, is expected to choose among three finalists for the OPC contract in 2016. The 25-ship contract is valued at more than $11 billion.

Coast Guard Commandant ADM Paul F. Zukunft told the panel that the OPC will be around for more than five decades, but said he could not specify if it would raise the percentage of drugs the service captures.

“We have done a lot of work on program so far,” he said.

Zukunft did note that although drug interdiction is one of the Coast Guard’s 11 core missions, it’s also a team effort involving other government agencies and allied nations. However, he reiterated that getting funding for OPC program of record was his top priority as commandant.

Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, disagreed with Schatz, saying there was a need for not only the OPC fleet, but a third icebreaker.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., echoed that sentiment, saying having icebreaking capabilities is of great importance for the country.

“We have to figure out a way we can get this funded now,” she said. 

The Coast Guard has two active icebreakers in Polar Star and Healy, both homeported in Seattle. Polar Star is two years into a 10-year service life extension and the Coast Guard is looking at the possibility of reactivating a third icebreaker, Polar Sea, which has been out of commission since 2010 after suffering an engine casualty.

“Two [icebreakers] is probably not adequate enough,” Zukunft said.

The commandant added that clearly there is a need going forward for additional icebreaking capabilities, and said the service eventually will need to recapitalize the fleet.

“We are looking at all our options,” he said.

It is estimated that a new icebreaker would cost around $1 billion and service officials and lawmakers have been stymied by how to fund it. With an annual acquisition budget hovering around $1 billion, service officials have said the Coast Guard would not be able to fund an icebreaker alone.

During the “Staying Afloat: Examining the Resources and Priorities of the U.S. Coast Guard” hearing, Zukunft said Healy will be based in the Arctic over the summer during the service’s annual exercise to examine what capabilities may be needed in the region.

The Coast Guard does not have a full-time district in the Arctic.