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GOP lawmaker questions Coast Guard's icebreaker plans

A GOP congressman is questioning whether the United States will be able to stay competitive with Russia in the Arctic under the current timeline for the Coast Guard to get a new icebreaker ship.

“It is clear countries like Russia, with a large fleet of heavy icebreakers, understand the importance of a strong presence in the Polar Regions,” Rep. Duncan HunterDuncan Duane HunterDem candidate announces Ben & Jerry's flavor: Ammar-etto American Dream California Dem hits Trump Jr. over claims of links to extremist groups Poll: Dems lead in 5 critical California House seats MORE (R-Calif.) wrote in a letter to the commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Paul Zukunft. “Regrettably, the Coast Guard’s current plan of action has a high likelihood of leaving our country without this important capability for at least several years.”

Global powers are relying on icebreakers as they move to maintain access to, if not control, new waterways created as Arctic sea ice melts.

The Coast Guard currently has three icebreakers, but only two are fully functional. Of those two, only one is a heavy-duty icebreaker. 

By contrast, Russia has 40 icebreakers and another 11 planned or being built.

The Coast Guard’s 2017 budget request asks for $150 million to fund planning and design for a new icebreaker. Plans call for it to be procured in 2020 and enter service in 2024 or 2025.

But Hunter said he worries there could be delays.

“I have serious concerns that this timeline could be subject to delays and leave our country exposed to critical capability gaps,” wrote Hunter, chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee on the Coast Guard.

Hunter asks the Coast Guard for more details on the timeline, whether the service plans to try to extend the life of its current heavy-duty icebreaker and if not, how it plans to address the capability gap, among other questions.

“It is my goal to ensure that a heavy icebreaker is acquired as efficiently and quickly as possible — and I hope the Coast Guard shares that goal,” he wrote. “Before making a final judgment on the Coast Guard’s heave icebreaker acquisition strategy and budget request, I will await your response to this letter.”