Cantwell Calls for New Fleet of Icebreakers, Refurbishing POLAR SEA
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee and one of the Senate’s leading voices on Coast Guard and Arctic issues, called on the Obama Administration to take the United States Arctic leadership to the next level by funding a new fleet of polar icebreakers and refurbishing the Coast Guard Cutter, the POLAR SEA.
“As the sole provider of the nation’s icebreaking capabilities, the Coast Guard is falling short in its capacity to conduct its statutory mission requirements in the Polar regions. The United States cannot stand by, vulnerable, as we wait to build our own fleet over the next decade,” continued Cantwell.
While President Obama announced that he plans to include funding for new icebreakers in his FY2017 budget request, the U.S. continues to lag behind other Arctic nations such as Russia, which currently operates 29 icebreakers compared to the two ice breakers operated by the U.S. Russia has six icebreakers under construction with plans for five additional icebreakers.
“I strongly support your proposed plan to speed up the acquisition of new Coast Guard heavy icebreakers. Moving forward, I urge you to take this plan a step further by also refurbishing the Coast Guard icebreaker POLAR SEA to ensure that the United States is able to effectively, efficiently, safely, and consistently operate in the Polar regions,” said Cantwell in the letter.
For the last decade, Cantwell has championed efforts to improve the United States icebreaker fleet. Adequate investment in the U.S. polar icebreaking fleet is particularly vital to the men, women and families in the Coast Guard based in Seattle, WA. Coast Guard members’ safety and ability to protect our nation’s environmental and national security priorities is dependent on the resources provided to them.
Earlier this year, Senator Cantwell held a hearing on U.S. strategy in the Arctic and introduced bipartisan legislation, the Icebreaker Recapitalization Act to authorize the Navy to construct up to six heavy icebreakers to be designed and operated by the Coast Guard. In March, she also led a bipartisan letter to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security to request additional funding for the Coast Guard in Fiscal Year 2016—including funding for icebreakers.
Last year, Cantwell cosponsored legislation that would have approved the Coast Guard to overhaul the heavy icebreaker Polar Sea, now idle at Seattle’s Pier 36, and return it to service. While the Coast Guard is in dire need of new polar icebreakers, it will take up to 10 years for a new icebreaker to come online. Refurbishing the Polar Sea is the only way to maintain Coast Guard heavy icebreaking capability as the U.S. builds the new fleet. In 2012, Congress passed the Cantwell amendment, which prevented the Polar Sea from going to the scrapyard. Cantwell has long advocated for strengthening our nation’s fleet of polar icebreakers and for protecting the Polar Sea.
Read Senator Cantwell’s letter to President Obama below or online here.
Dear Mr. President:
The United States is facing a serious problem in the Arctic – we do not have the operational ice breaker capacity to support our nation’s security, trade, transportation, search-and-rescue, environmental response, or research mission requirements in the Polar regions. As you know, the Coast Guard is the sole provider of polar icebreaking assets for the federal government, including for the Department of Defense. As the world pivots to the Arctic, the United States has only two operational polar icebreakers. Russia has 40 operational icebreakers while China has invested $300 million for a second operational heavy icebreaker, $400 million in energy projects in Arctic Canada, and intends to invest $2.3 billion in an Arctic Greenland mining project. To that end, I strongly support your proposed plan to speed up the acquisition of new Coast Guard heavy icebreakers. Moving forward, I urge you to take this plan a step further by also refurbishing the Coast Guard icebreaker POLAR SEA to ensure that the United States is able to effectively, efficiently, safely, and consistently operate in the Polar regions.
In 2015, the same year that the United States assumed Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the National Observation and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that winter Arctic sea ice coverage was at its lowest than during any winter on record. NOAA also predicted nearly ice-free summers by mid-century. With the decrease in Arctic summer sea ice, there has been a boom in Arctic vessel traffic. From 2008 through 2013, there was more than a 100% increase in vessels transiting the U.S. Arctic region. And as the sea ice continues to abate, more shipping companies are seeking access to the Arctic routes. To illustrate, Russia issued only four permits to transit their Arctic waters in 2010, but the number of permits issued by Russia jumped to 650 this year. Marine operators are looking to transit the Arctic Ocean because the Northern routes cut transit distances in half, potentially saving 14 days of sailing time. Recreational activity in the Arctic is also increasing, with the first ever luxury cruise through the Northwest Passage happening next summer.
In addition to increased economic development, a military engagement in the Arctic is a real and growing threat. Just this year, Russian President Putin sent 55 ships to patrol the region as a part of elaborate Arctic military exercises. The U.S. Navy has reiterated time and again that it relies exclusively on the Coast Guard for its icebreaking capability, should it need to move ships through the Polar regions, but as military activity increases in the Arctic, the U.S. icebreaker fleet has shrunk. The U.S. Navy cannot rely on existing Coast Guard icebreaking resources to meet Arctic missions, including basic maritime reconnaissance activities.
Furthermore, due to the technical aspects of icebreaker construction, it will take 10 years at best before a new icebreaking vessel is constructed and operational in the U.S. fleet. We are facing a gap of at least 6 years in heavy icebreaking capabilities between the end of the POLAR STAR’s service life and when a new heavy icebreaker could be delivered – that is if a new heavy icebreaker is funded starting in FY 2017. To ensure that our national security is maintained in the polar latitudes while we design and construct the new icebreaking fleet, I urge you to include funding to bring the Coast Guard Cutter POLAR SEA back up to operational capacity in the Administration’s FY 2017 budget request.
As the former Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee, I am all too familiar with budgetary challenges confronting the Coast Guard. Over the last five years, the Coast Guard has faced damaging budget constraints that have forced decisions that hinder existing missions as well as hamper future missions. In effect, the budget shortfalls have resulted in an unauthorized realignment of mission readiness and capabilities – which is shortsighted and unacceptable. In March of this year, I led a bipartisan letter with 15 of my Senate colleagues to the Senate Committee on Appropriations requesting additional funding for the Coast Guard in an effort to reverse these damaging cuts
As important as the Coast Guard’s icebreaker recapitalization program is, I would be remiss if I did not advocate for the Coast Guard’s larger Acquisition Directorate. The Coast Guard’s ability to stretch its limited resources by extending vessel service life far beyond its original design is commendable even if unfortunate. I was impressed that on a recent tour of the Cutter MELLON, a 49-year-old ship, I met the Engineering Officer whose father had served on the very same ship 22 years before. Like the MELLON, some 20 cutters are nearly 50 years old and in dire need of replacement. The Commandant’s top acquisition request this fiscal year was the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC). OPCs are absolutely critical to the future of the Coast Guard’s surface fleet and cannot be impacted by procuring icebreakers. The Coast Guard’s $1 billion acquisition budget is already stretched too thin, having been cut by 40% in the last four years alone. Therefore, the icebreaker recapitalization program must be an increase over the existing Coast Guard acquisition budget. To achieve this, I support a multi-agency approach to funding the icebreaker program, including securing funds from the United States Navy which relies on Coast Guard icebreakers to meet their maritime domain awareness requirements in the Arctic.
As the sole provider of the nation’s icebreaking capabilities, the Coast Guard is falling short in its capacity to conduct its statutory mission requirements in the Polar regions. The United States cannot stand by, vulnerable, as we wait to build our own fleet over the next decade. Refurbishing the POLAR SEA sends a message to the world that our national priority is to keep the Polar regions secure while we invest and recapitalize our icebreaking fleet.
Thank you for your consideration of this request. I look forward to working with you to better support the men and women in the Coast Guard charged with operating in the Arctic -- one of the harshest and most dynamic environments in the world.
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