For now, the heavy icebreaker Polar Sea is the Coast Guard's only option, but it's into its fifth decade of service, and doesn't have a backup if it breaks down.
The goal, Hunter's chief of staff told Navy Times, is to start a conversation about whether the Navy should put some of its money into the Coast Guard's acquisition program, or help pay to lease a heavy icebreaker until the Coast Guard finishes its own. While the Coast Guard has taken the lead in operating in the Arctic, it's really the Navy that will benefit from the cleared ice, Hunter's chief of staff, Joe Kasper, told Navy Times.
"The Navy's going to have to put some skin in the game," he said. "The Navy's going to have to support efforts to enhance ice-breaking capability in the Arctic if the Navy truly believes that capability is necessary."
Hunter is concerned that the Coast Guard's acquisition process, which puts a new icebreaker in the water by 2025, is going to leave the U.S. too far behind.
Russia, a competitor for operating space in the Arctic, has 41 heavy icebreakers and 14 under contract, according to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft.
"Every time we blink, Russia puts more icebreakers in the water in the Arctic," Kasper said. "We are seriously behind the curve."
The Navy and Coast Guard are working closely on the Arctic, she said, as Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson mentioned in congressional testimony earlier this year.
To get up to speed, the Navy could join the Coast Guard's icebreaker acquisition program to provide ship design oversight and production management. It took this step in the early 2000s when the Coast Guard began its national security cutter program, according to a defense expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.
By teaming up, the Navy can use money from its shipbuilding account to fund an icebreaker as a noncombatant ship, then transfer the program to the Coast Guard later, Clark said. The Coast Guard doesn't have access to that pot of Defense Department overseas contingency operations money, but Military Sealift Command does, so they can be the Coast Guard's partner.
Hunter's office has looked into the possibility of leasing an icebreaker from the Coast Guard — from Finland, for example — but medium-to-heavy icebreakers are hard to come by, and the congressman isn't enthusiastic about the idea of using a foreign ship, Kasper said.
Again, DoD money for noncombatant operations would foot the bill.
The plan would not be, however, to find a way for the Navy to build its own icebreaker — just to use some of its budget muscle to help out the Coast Guard.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.