In the fiscal year 2019 president’s budget, President Donald J. Trump requested $750 million in funding for a new U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker — a long overdue asset for the service and one that helps the United States maintain a presence in the Arctic.
But with the design work already underway, the House of Representatives is threatening to eliminate this program from the budget at a time when Russia and China are both building out a larger fleet of icebreakers in a grab for dominance in Arctic waters.
Currently, the Coast Guard has one remaining active icebreaker, the 42-year-old Polar Star. But with each polar voyage, the terrible condition of the ship is becoming blatantly apparent. Finding parts for the aging ship is so difficult that the Coast Guard is often forced to get them off inactive cutter Polar Sea or turn to eBay.
In order for the service to fulfill its motto of “semper paratus,” or always ready, the Coast Guard can’t rely on Polar Sea to go toe-to-toe with foreign icebreakers. They must build a new icebreaker to replace it. And the service doesn’t have time to wait.
Foreign countries such as Russia and China are taking greater interest in polar regions, and the race for strategic advantage in that region is already underway in a sense. Russia has more than 40 of its own icebreakers, and China recently began a project to build its third icebreaker, a nuclear-powered ship — a sign the nation recognizes the significance of dominating the Arctic early.
To counter foreign presence in the arctic, the Coast Guard has a validated requirement for three heavy and three medium icebreakers, and the single heavy Polar Star does not have that capacity. Aside from defense, icebreakers enable the Coast Guard to help many government agencies dependent on these ships to perform their functions, including the Department of Transportation, Department of the Interior, Department of Commerce, and the National Science Foundation.
It is disconcerting that these funds have been stripped. This program cannot be delayed any longer; timing is crucial to ensure America isn’t left helpless in the Arctic. These funds should be restored in the FY19 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Bill when it comes to the floor.
We must ensure the new heavy icebreaker is delivered by 2023 or risk being excluded from this important region, just as its potential as a new trade route and its unexploited natural resources are being developed.
The Navy League supports the Coast Guard’s president request of $750 million. It is of the utmost importance that we maintain our presence in the Arctic. The U.S. can’t sit back and allow foreign powers to dominate an area of the world that we know is strategically vital to our national sovereignty.
Alan Kaplan is the national president of the Navy League of the United States, www.navyleague.org.