The Coast Guard’s long-sought heavy icebreaker, the Polar Security Cutter, was among the programs to receive funding when Congress passed a spending package on late Thursday.
The Coast Guard is receiving $655 million to start construction on the lead ship for a new class of Polar Security Cutter and is receiving an addition $20 million to purchase long-lead-time materials for a second heavy icebreaker, as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Fiscal Year 2019 appropriations bill, Congressional staffers told USNI News.
Last summer, the Senate had agreed to appropriate $755 million for the Polar Security Cutter. The House of Representatives, though, instead provided DHS with $5 billion to build a wall along the border with Mexico while canceling funding for a variety of programs including the Polar Security Cutter.
“With the support of the administration and Congress, we plan to build a new fleet of six polar icebreakers – at least three of which must be heavy icebreakers – and we need the first new Polar Security Cutter immediately to meet America’s needs in the Arctic,” read a statement from the service provided to USNI News. “The United States is an Arctic nation with extensive national and global responsibilities. Our role in the Arctic is growing. Diminishing Arctic sea ice is expanding access to the region and attracting attention from both partner and rival states across the globe. Resource extraction, fisheries, tourism and commercial shipping, in conjunction with traditional Alaska native activities, are driving increased maritime activity and a greater need for Coast Guard presence in the region. America’s only heavy icebreaker, the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, is more than 40 years old and must be replaced by the new Polar Security Cutter.”
The Coast Guard has for several years pushed for funding the ice breaker program. Currently, the Coast Guard has only one operational heavy icebreaker, USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10), commissioned in 1976. A second icebreaker, USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB-11) has not been operational since a 2010 engine failure and instead has for nearly a decade served as a parts donor to keep Polar Star running, USNI News reported in 2017.
For years, having only one working heavy icebreaker hindered the Coast Guard’s ability to satisfy mission requests from government agencies effectively. The Coast Guard was only able to fulfill 78 percent of heavy icebreaking missions between 2010 and 2016, according to a September 2017 Government Accountability Office report.
House Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security member Rep David Price (D-N.C.) told USNI News that the new bill will start to build up what he sees as a critical U.S. capability.
“With China and Russia showing increased interest in the Arctic region, the Coast Guard’s Arctic Strategy is more critical than ever to our national security,” Price said in a statement to USNI News. For years, there has been a significant gap in our nation’s icebreaking capabilities, and I’m pleased the bipartisan FY19 omnibus bill includes funding to finally construct a new Polar Security Cutter, as well as money to begin purchasing long lead time materials for a second. The new Polar Security Cutter will ensure that our national security and economic interests are protected, that our marine vessels are provided safe passage, and that the United States has the ability to counter increased Russian aggression.”