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White House: We must keep our icebreakers

As the House Armed Services Committee's seapower panel warned of an imaginary "day without seapower" Thursday, an actual key component of American seapower actually did come under threat elsewhere in the Capitol.

That same day, this year's Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act was referred to the full House, prompting this message from the Office of Management and Budget:

The Administration strongly opposes House passage of H.R. 2838 because it includes a provision that would require the Coast Guard to decommission the icebreaker USCGC POLAR STAR.  The Administration has requested, and Congress has appropriated, funds to reactivate the USCGC POLAR STAR by December 2012 and extend that vessel’s service life for seven to 10 years.  This effort will stabilize the United States’ existing polar fleet until long-term icebreaking capability requirements are finalized.  By directing the Commandant to decommission the USCGC POLAR STAR within three years, the bill would effectively reduce the vessel’s service life to two years and create a significant gap in the Nation’s icebreaking capacity.  The Administration supports Title II (Coast Guard and Servicemember Parity), which would promote parity between the Coast Guard and the other branches of the armed forces.  The Administration looks forward to working with the Congress to improve H.R. 2838 as the bill moves through the legislative process.
Because of the nature of the federal bureaucracy, the Coast Guard and its needs don't enjoy the mother-hen protections of the Armed Services Committees, now in see-no-evil overdrive mode trying to protect the DoD budget. Instead, as they have for years, Transportation Committee lawmakers are looking at the bottom line and saying, well, it's gonna cost a lot to keep the old girl in service, so off she goes.

Although all the fashionable D.C. think-tanks and white-paperists love to talk about the growing importance of the melting Arctic, the discussions over the past few years have been mostly disconnected from the reality of America's ability to operate at the top of the world. The Coast Guard has three Arctic-capable ships: The Polar Star, its sibling Polar Sea and an ice-strengthened research ship, the Healy. The Polars are purpose-built, heavy-duty icebreakers. They're remarkable ships; they were designed with complex internal water tanks, for example, that enable them to ride up on heavy ice and rock themselves back and forth to crush it, clearing a path for other ships.

But they're decades old and expensive to operate, and because the Coast Guard has much less throw weight than the DoD services, it got into a bind a few years ago: One of the polar rollers' main missions was to break channels for resupply ships headed to the U.S. Antarctic research center at McMurdo Station. So the National Science Foundation paid for the icebreakers' missions, even though they were owned and crewed by the Coast Guard. When Polar Sea and Polar Star got too expensive and NSF realized it was cheaper to charter a private icebreaker, it stopped backing the Coasties' ships. That lack of steady funding, along with the ships' age and condition, has put them into a slow tailspin, kept them mostly tied up in Seattle and now in Congress' crosshairs.

(The Healy is a comparatively new and highly capable ship, but it was built for science, not the kind of heavy navigational icebreaking as the Polars.)

The Coast Guard has been caught in this vortex for years -- maybe the polar rollers will go away, maybe they'll be upgraded -- and the Obama administration's caution is just the latest delay. This was one of the things former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen always said required a "national discussion," because the U.S. needed to determine what exactly it was willing to do, defend and concede up in the Arctic. But as you see from OMB's message, the Obama administration's desire to add 10 years of life to the Polar Star is only another stopgap "until long-term icebreaking capability requirements are finalized."

Translation: We consider this one of those nice things but not nice enough to actually deal with -- and, most importantly, to fund. So file the polar icebreakers along with the Navy's submarine tenders and amphibious command ships: Old vessels that perform critical missions, but which probably will remain low priorities in Austerity America.

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