The two services are standing up a joint program office after months of prodding by a California congressman who has called for the Coast Guard to put an icebreaker in the water as soon as possible, whether newly built or leased from another country.
"What I got out of this and the last hearing too — the Coast Guard doesn't get it," Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., told Navy Times on Wednesday, following a hearing of the House Transportation Committee's Coast Guard and maritime transportation subcommittee. "This is going to take massive pushes and changes, even more from Congress. It's going to take the Navy kind of taking this over."
The subcommittee and the vice commandant of the Coast Guard have gone back and forth in recent hearings over what the U.S. needs to have a minimum icebreaking capability in the Arctic versus what the Coast Guard needs from a ship in general.
"The Coast Guard operates Coast Guard vessels," Adm. Charles Michel said in a hearing Tuesday, where he spoke alongside Navy acquisition and shipbuilding experts. "This is not a pick-up game for the Coast Guard."
In order to be able to operate as a military vessel, which is what Coast Guard cutters are, Michel said, the icebreakers would also need to be able to assert navigation rights, perform search and rescue and respond to environmental disasters.
"I'm happy to have this dialogue with you on what this vessel is," he told Hunter. "This vessel does not just break ice, just like the Polar Sea and Polar Star do not just break ice."
Currently, the Coast Guard has two heavy icebreakers — the Polar Star and the Polar Sea — and one medium, a scientific research ship called Healy.
All told, according to Homeland Security Department research, the U.S. needs three heavy and three medium icebreakers to be able to break ice 365 days a year.
Hunter and his fellow subcommittee members, on the other hand, have supported the idea of leasing medium icebreakers from Arctic nations like Finland, an approach that the Coast Guard has been reluctant to pursue.
But there aren't any available that are up to the Coast Guard's specifications, Michel said. And renting is an expensive proposition for an already cash-strapped service, said one expert.
"Generally speaking, purchasing is the way to go," said Jennifer Grover, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office.
For now, that leaves the Navy's support as the best option. Ideally, said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., the Navy would use its budget and acquisition infrastructure to get the Coast Guard two icebreakers in the next five to seven years.
The two services are working on a memorandum of understanding as the foundation for a joint program office, according to Hunter's chief of staff.
"Part of the realization is that the Coast Guard needs the Navy's help," Joe Kasper told Navy Times. "Everybody's losing patience with 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.