The Coast Guard is in the very early stages of building a second heavy icebreaker, but it's still about 10 years away and a California congressman is calling for looking to the Navy to help its sister service out with design acumen and moneyin the meantime.
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.
In a May 17Tuesday letter to Assistant Navy Secretary Sean Stackley, who's in charge of research, development and acquisitions, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter asked the Department of the Navy to provide some insight on the service's Arctic capabilities and outlook.
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 has received Hunter's letter and "The Navy has received the correspondence and will respond through appropriate channels," said Capt. Thurraya Kent, Stackley's spokeswoman.
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.
"With respect to icebreakers, we're working very closely with our partners in the Coast Guard," Richardson said. "That — That part of the mission will remain theirs. The security part will remain ours, and we've had a steady presence."
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.
"The National Security Cutter program was originally managed by the Navy ... the Coast Guard didn’t really have the acquisition wherewithal to manage a large ship program like that," Bryan Clark said. "They hadn’t run a big acquisition program like since they acquired the Hamilton class, which waswould like 30 years before."
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.
In that case, Clark said, MSC could lease the ship and operate it with a civilian ship's master, but also a Coast Guard detachment aboard with a uniformed commanding officer.
"MSC would lease this ship and then they would operate it in conjunction with the Coast Guard," he said. "It’d be difficult to make it a military ship, but the Coast Guard doesn’t operate military ships anyway, mostly."
Again, DoD money for noncombatant operations would foot the bill.
"What it would cost the Coast Guard to lease an icebreaker is more or a less budget dust to the U.S. Navy," Kaper added.
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.
In his letter, Hunter specifically asked Stackley to weigh in on the capability gap created by having one aging, heavy icebreaker on hand, whether the Navy could help support the Coast Guard's efforts, and how closing that gap would benefit a naval presence in the Arctic.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.