The Coast Guard is in the early stages of designing a new heavy icebreaker to power through sea ice, and the service's former commandant says that should only be the start. of new program that would bring a new heavy icebreaker to its current one-ship inventory, but according to the service's former commandant, that probably won't be enough.
According to expert calculations, The U.S. will need eight icebreakers if it decides wants to have one patrolling either pole at all times, retired Adm. Bob Papp said Wednesday at the annual Surface Navy Association outside Washington, D.C. That's an emerging possibility as sea ice melting in the Arctic is opening the once impenetrable region to more shipping and resource extraction.
Before passing on command to Adm. Paul Zukunft in May 2014, Papp said he would discuss possible polar optempo with then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert.
"If we were to say we needed a full-time presence of one on each pole, Jon Greenert would tell me that's a 2.0 presence," he said. "You need eight ships to do that. The Coast Guard's never been able to do that."
The good news, Papp said, is that the service will be getting at least one in the coming years.
Earlier Wednesday, Zukunft announced a new Federal Business Opportunities solicitation, the first step in market research for the Polar Star Icebreaker Replacement program that the Coast Guard hopes will yield multiple ships.
"I can assure you, I know that we are working toward icebreakers," Papp said, emphasizing the plural.
After leaving he's left the Coast Guard, Papp took a job as the State Department's special representative for the Arctic a month after his retirement, and has since traveled the world to build his expertise.
U.S. Arctic policy is a matter of national security, he said, but not just a matter of defense. The State Department's vision focuses as well on sovereign rights and responsibilities of Arctic nations, maritime safety, energy, economic interests, environmental stewardship, scientific research and support to indigenous peoples.
Getting a handle on the situation is becoming more and more necessary as the Arctic heats up, literally and figuratively.
"Climate change is having a huge impact on our operations up in the Arctic," Papp said. "We probably wouldn't be there if it wasn't for climate change."
Much of the discussion around U.S. operations in the Arctic has focused on Russia and its interest in natural resources or commerce, but it may not be the only power player at the top of the globe.
There are five key transit routes across the Arctic now, and with less year-round ice, he added, more nations will start seeing the region as a key shipping pathway with potential for more ports.
"If scientists are correct and we lose the multiyear ice by 2050, that's going to offer, perhaps, shaving off 10 days of travel between Europe and the Far East," Papp said.
That could open up a lot of commerce for Nordic countries like Iceland and Norway, he added.
The next year will be crucial for his organization, as President Obama featured climate change and the Arctic prominently in his Tuesday night State of the Union address.
"We need to take advantage of the next year that we have left" of the administration, Papp said, to lay more groundwork before the next administration comes in.
And essential to that plan will be more icebreakers, because the U.S. can't support its policies without being physically able to move about in the Arctic, he said.
"It's important, because once again, going back to maritime governance: You have to, as a government, have assured access to your maritime regions," Papp said.
The number of heavy icebreakers is really irrelevant at this point, he said, but he's encouraged that soon there will be more than one.