The bill that avoided a second government shutdown finally provided the $655 million for a badly needed new icebreaker for the Coast Guard and $20 million more for start of construction on a second one.
"This is big, this is real, this is the largest single financial contribution to execution of our nation's Arctic strategy," Sen Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said last week.
Funding for the new icebreaker, to be called a "Polar Security Cutter," had been at risk of being diverted to construction of the southern border wall. But the bill signed into law last Friday by President Donald Trump earmarked money in the Department of Homeland Security's budget for a new ship to replace the Coast Guard's aging "Polar Star," the service’s only functioning heavy icebreaker.
The legislation had "tucked away, where no one can get to it, a little pot of money, $655 million dollars, to construct the first ever -- first ever -- Polar Security Cutter, and money to start construction on a second one," Murkowski said at the annual Armed Services YMCA Alaska's Salute to the Military in Anchorage.
It will be the service's first new icebreaker in 40 years, according to Stars and Stripes.
To underline the value of icebreakers, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz sent out a tweet last week hailing the rescue by the Polar Star of fishermen stuck in thick Antarctic ice.
The Polar Star "rescued 27 fishermen whose vessel became trapped in thick Antarctic ice 900 miles northeast of McMurdo Sound," the U.S. base in the Antarctic, Schultz wrote. "The crew broke through 150 miles of ice to reach the fishermen and to tow them to safety."
The Coast Guard views the appropriation by Congress as a down payment on an ambitious plan to boost the U.S. presence in the Arctic, and Antarctic, to counter Russia and China.
"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," according to a Coast Guard statement to U.S. Naval Institute News.
In one of a series of Christmas phone calls to service members worldwide, Trump likened the effort to secure funding for the new icebreaker to his difficulty in getting money for the border wall.
"It's like the border wall. We still need a wall," he said in a phone call to Coast Guard District 17 in Juneau, Alaska, but added, "The ice is in big trouble when that thing gets finished. It'll go right through it. It's very expensive, but that's OK."
At a Navy League breakfast in late December, and in an interview with Military.com, Schultz said he expected a contract for the new icebreaker to go out in the spring.
"We need it now," he said, but acknowledged that "it's probably six years from the contract award to splashing that ship."
Schultz noted that the Polar Star was commissioned in 1976, and "that ship is tired."
The 399-foot Polar Star has been assigned in recent years to the Antarctic, while the 420-foot medium icebreaker Healy, which was commissioned in 2000, has taken up Arctic duty.
The Polar Star is capable of breaking through six feet of ice at three-to-four knots, and 21 feet by backing and ramming, Schultz said. The Healy is capable of breaking through about four feet of ice at three-to-four knots, and eight feet by backing and ramming, he added.
The melting of the polar ice cap, attributed by the vast majority of scientists and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to climate change, has resulted in vast stretches of open water in the Arctic for commercial exploitation and competition for mineral rights.
Russia, which boasts of having at least 50 icebreakers, has increased military exercises in the region and heightened concerns at the Defense Department.
China, which has two icebreakers and has announced plans to acquire more, has spoken in its official media of creating a "polar silk road" through the Arctic sea lanes.
In Anchorage on Feb. 16, Murkowski said funding for the new icebreaker is a first step in countering Russia and China.
"So we're going to start a production line on icebreakers," she said. "You can call them Polar Security Cutters, or you can call them icebreakers, but we are beginning."
The purpose of the new ships is "to provide the United States of America with access -- access to a changing Arctic; access that we need to protect a wide, wide range of interests, whether it's domain awareness, whether it's search and rescue, whether it's protection of U.S. economic interests," Murkowski said.
-- Amy Bushatz contributed to this report.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.