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Obama Sees Need for More US Icebreakers: Former Coast Guard Commandant

Coast Guard icebreaker

President Obama went to Alaska to talk climate change and the need to do more to combat its destructive consequences.

But what he saw there also showed him the need for new icebreakers that the U.S. Coast Guard has been calling for for years, retired Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp told Congress last week.

Papp, who is now the U.S. special representative to the Arctic Council, said, "We got that commitment because we got him to Alaska."

"I for one, having responsibility for Arctic activities, am glad that he came up there for any reason," he told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittees. "I don't care what reason, but we finally got him up there and coming back from Alaska now these are top priorities for the administration."

The Coast Guard has only two icebreakers, both of which are decades old.

Papp said Obama is committed to speeding up the construction of the icebreaker the administration agreed to in 2013, "and he's now talking plural in terms of icebreakers, and I am assured we're moving in that direction."

The icebreaker that has already gotten a White House commitment is expected to cost about $1 billion.

In February, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said the service has need of three heavy and three medium-sized icebreakers to cover American interest in the Arctic as well as the Antarctic, according to the U.S. Naval Institute.

Vice Adm. Charles D. Michel, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, told the joint congressional panel last week that when he entered the service "we had five heavy icebreakers. When my commandant [Zukunft] came in we had seven heavy icebreakers."

"We've allowed that to atrophy down to one heavy icebreaker that is over 40 years old that been refurbed for another five to eight years of use, and one medium icebreaker," he said. "It's a long history as to why we find ourselves where we are, but I can tell you right now I cannot guaranty the United States of America global, year-round access to all the ice-covered areas where we have sovereign interests."

--Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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