Still years from the delivery of the first of three planned polar security icebreakers, the Coast Guard has asked Congress for the funds to buy a commercial icebreaker so that the service can continue operations in the polar regions.
The Coast Guard's proposed fiscal 2023 $13.8 billion budget request includes $125 million for a commercially available polar icebreaker, along with modifications for it to support Coast Guard operations.
According to Coast Guard budget documents released Monday, the purchase would represent "an effective strategy to increase the near-term presence in the Arctic" until the new polar security cutter fleet is operational.
"This vessel will provide a platform capable of projecting U.S. sovereignty and influence while conducting Coast Guard statutory missions in the high latitudes," Coast Guard officials wrote in the proposal.
The service awarded a $745 million contract in April 2019 to VT Halter Marine Inc., of Pascagoula, Mississippi, to build the first of three planned polar security cutters, and design work continues on the vessel, which the Coast Guard had hoped would be delivered in 2024.
But design issues and work delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed expected delivery to 2025, according to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz.
Given that the service has only two ocean-going icebreakers, including one that is more than 45 years old, a commercial icebreaker would fill any gaps in polar operations that might occur with increased mission demands or in the event of a catastrophic failure of those two ships.
The proposed purchase comes as China and Russia have stepped up their presence in the Arctic region, with Russia expanding its number of icebreakers and building infrastructure in the region.
Last August, Russia held a live-fire exercise in the Bering Sea that included part of the U.S.'s exclusive economic zone, potentially putting American fishing boats in harm's way.
China, too, has increased visits to the Arctic region and is increasing the size of its icebreaker fleet. In 2018, it called itself a "near-Arctic state”, expressing interest in developing a "Polar Silk Road" that would connect China and Europe through the Arctic, according to a Chinese government white paper.
The Coast Guard's new commercial icebreaker would represent "an effective strategy to increase near-term presence in the Arctic until the Polar Security Cutter fleet is operational and to add regional capacity in the long-term," officials wrote in the budget proposal.
In addition to the purchase of the new icebreaker, the budget contains $1.4 billion to buy or sustain new ships and aircraft, including $167.2 million to continue program management for the construction of the first two polar security cutters and buy materials for building a third, and $15 million to continue a service life extension project for the 45-year-old heavy icebreaker Polar Star.
Also under procurement, construction and improvements, the budget calls for $650 million to build a fifth offshore patrol cutter and buy materials for a sixth, and allots $93.3 million to extend the lives of the service's medium endurance cutters, seagoing and coastal buoy tenders, 47-foot motor lifeboats and the Coast Guard’s medium icebreaker Healy, which operates primarily in the Arctic.
The procurement budget also includes more than $180 million to sustain aircraft and add unmanned aircraft capabilities, including $50 million to adapt or modernize HC-27J Spartan cargo aircraft for Coast Guard use; nearly $110 million to extend the life of the service's MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters; and $17 million to sustain the MH-65 Dolphin helicopter fleet into the 2030s.
The Coast Guard anticipates that it will save more than $30 million by decommissioning five Island Class patrol boats, which are being replaced by new fast-response cutters. It also plans to decommission one medium endurance cutter and believes it will save more than $7.7 million on the projected costs of its electronic health records program with the Defense Department completing the infrastructure needed to operate it across the military services.
The service’s overall proposed budget, which includes $11.5 billion in discretionary funds, represents a 2.7% increase from the service’s current funding levels and includes money to provide Coast Guard members and civilian employees a 4.6% pay raise.
In a letter accompanying the Coast Guard's budget release, Schultz said with rapidly changing environmental conditions and increased operational demands from law enforcement missions and ports and waterways management to national security, the "domestic and global call" for the Coast Guard's presence "has never been greater."
"Our continued focus and commitment is to ensure the Coast Guard remains ready and adaptive to the rapidly changing maritime domain," Schultz said.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime