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Congress is ramping up demands for the U.S. to build its icebreaker fleet — although how the Coast Guard will acquire icebreakers while maintaining frontline operations under a tight budget remains in question.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, proposed an $8.7-billion discretionary budget earlier this month for fiscal 2012, in line with the service's request and about $115 million below fiscal 2011 levels. The Senate version of the authorization bill sets similar funding levels as the House bill, which authorizes $8.5 billion.
"Senator Begich strongly supports the Coast Guard and thinks its budget needs to be plussed up to account for increased missions in the Arctic," Begich spokeswoman Julie Hasquet said. "But we also have to respond to demand from the administration and the public to cut spending."
The Senate's Coast Guard authorization bill, S 1665, requires the service to operate at least two heavy polar icebreakers at any one time and authorizes it to study building a deep-water sea port in the Arctic.
"With increased energy development and maritime activity, our nation must ensure that the Coast Guard has the capabilities to operate in the Arctic waters," Begich said during a Senate subcommittee hearing this summer on the Arctic. "That includes icebreakers, which we are sorely lacking."
The Coast Guard estimates it will need at least three heavy and three medium icebreakers to meet minimum mission requirements as the polar ice cap melts.
The service has three polar icebreakers — one is inactive, and another isn't expected to return to operations until 2013.
The Senate authorization bill cuts $200 million from acquisitions, to about $1.4 billion.
Hasquet said cutting acquisitions is "not ideal as the Coast Guard has major needs for vessels and aircraft."
"We are separately looking for ways to address the critical need for the Coast Guard to modernize its aging cutter fleet and maintain icebreaker capability," she said.
Leasing an icebreaker?
Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are suggesting the Coast Guard lease hulls instead of building icebreakers.
Legislation introduced Oct. 5 in the House calls for the service to sign long-term leases to build its icebreaker fleet.
The House bill, HR 3113, requires the Coast Guard to enter lease agreements for two icebreakers within four years, with each lease required to last 10 years. The bill was introduced by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who said the U.S. is being beaten in the race for the Arctic "by the likes of China and Russia."
"In these difficult budgetary times, leasing should be considered as an option to relieve stress on annual budgets," Young said in a statement announcing the bill. "My legislation does that while modernizing our icebreaker fleet so that we are able to compete with any other country in the world."
Papp: Arctic resources needed
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp and other service leaders have pushed in recent years for Congress to provide resources so the service can prepare for bigger Arctic missions.
Papp told Navy Times in September that the Coast Guard "currently has zero resources to apply in the Arctic on a full-time basis."
"We don't have a distress response system up there, and it's very hard to get word down to south Alaska in terms of providing responses for just even simple search and rescue," Papp said. "And even if we do get the word, the closest air station is in Kodiak. That's, at a minimum, about a 10-hour transit."
Papp told Navy Times that until now, the 17th District — which oversees Coast Guard operations in Alaska — has governed the service's response to diminishing ice and its effect on operations. But a national-level team of experts, he said, has been put together to determine how the Coast Guard will advocate for resources and put them in Alaska.
"We don't have any command and control, or anybody permanently up [on Alaska's northern slope]," Papp said. "We don't even have a hangar where we could put a couple of helicopters or an aircraft.
"There has to be some level of minimal Coast Guard resources up there to be able to sustain a forward operating base."