Cantwell, Murkowski Call Upon President Obama Fill Mission-Critical Gaps in U.S. Polar Icebreaking Fleet

With the USCGC Healy behind them, Senators call for overhaul of U.S. capacity to operate in the Polar Regions

SEATTLE, WA – With the USCGC Healy behind them, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) today called upon President Obama to fill mission-critical gaps in the U.S. polar icebreaking fleet—the vessels the U.S. Coast Guard requires to access the Arctic and the Antarctic—in his forthcoming budget.

“The U.S. is falling farther and farther behind other countries. Russia has 40 operational icebreakers. Even China operates a polar icebreaker and it isn’t even an Arctic nation,” said Cantwell, the former Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fishers, and Coast Guard. “That’s why, today, I’m calling on President Obama to prioritize the American icebreaking fleet by making investments in new heavy icebreakers. It is vital, in my view, that the Obama Administration pursue an Arctic strategy—not just on paper—but with significant actions proportionate to the challenges and opportunities we face there—we can’t wait any longer.”

“It is time for our nation to recognize that a polar icebreaker is a valuable strategic asset, and time to make building one a national priority. I look at Russia’s fleet with envy. Right now, they are building 14 new icebreakers, from various designs that can be put to multiple uses,” said Murkowski.  “President Obama announced in Alaska last summer he would accelerate the construction of an American icebreaker. Announcements are great, but now the President needs to actually walk the walk, and request the necessary funding from Congress in his 2017 budget.”

The Senators were joined by Coast Guard Rear Admiral Jeff Garrett, the first commanding officer of the USCGC Healy.

Despite numerous studies that have confirmed the Coast Guard requires a minimum of three heavy and three medium icebreakers to fulfill its missions, the U.S. currently has only three polar icebreakers: two heavy and one medium. The two heavy icebreakers are more than 40 years old with the Polar Sea currently sitting idle pending a decision on refurbishment. By contrast, Russia has 40 operational icebreakers while Sweden and Finland operate six and seven icebreakers, respectively.

A 2015 report by the McDowell Group found that in the Puget Sound region, Alaska-related commerce fueled 113,000 jobs and $6.2 billion in earnings—meaning icebreakers, which help facilitate shipping, tourism, fishing and other industries in the Artic, are integral to the economy of the Pacific Northwest.

For the last decade, Cantwell and Murkowski have championed efforts to boost the Coast Guard’s aging polar icebreaking fleet. In May 2015, Cantwell and Murkowski co-sponsored a bill to authorize the construction of up to six heavy icebreakers.  

Separately, Cantwell today wrote to the President, urging him to include funding for a more robust icebreaker fleet in his fiscal year 2017 budget.