The United States is completely lacking in surface assets to navigate the Arctic, according to a top Navy official. To fix that, a California congressman is determined to get the Coast Guard not one but two new icebreakers.
The services have teamed up on a program office that will lend Navy acquisitions muscles to the Coast Guard's polar expertise, but the Coast Guard is going to have to be more aggressive, according to the chief of staff for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif, chairman of the Coast Guard and maritime transportation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"This is the big siren call for the Coast Guard: The Coast Guard is going to have to do an even better job of advocating for its own mission and it's going to have to do a better job of asking for resources that are desperately needed," Joe Kasper told Navy Times.
In a May letter to Navy Assistant Secretary Sean Stackley, head of research, development and acquisitions, Hunter asked for a rundown of the service's Arctic capability.
He got a response Aug. 31, with Stackley's full support of the Coast Guard's purview over the Arctic, but pointing out that the Navy is limited to submarine and air assets in the Arctic.
"With the exception of two Combat Logistics Force ship classes, Navy's current surface combatants are not capable of operating in the extreme harsh environment of sea-ice conditions, even with the support of a Coast Guard icebreaker," Stackley wrote.
Hunter's office is concerned that the U.S. doesn't have an Arctic requirement at all, and the Coast Guard's plan would let a decade go by before adding a heavy icebreaker.
The Coast Guard has Polar Star, a heavy icebreaker that makes a yearly trip to Antarctica before heading right back into maintenance, but it is scheduled to go out of service by the mid-2020s. Its other heavy icebreaker is Polar Sea, which is in drydock with no budget for repairs.
The service has suggested either extending Polar Star's service life or reactivating Polar Sea to fill the gap, but Hunter is determined to speed the acquisition of a new heavy icebreaker, require the Coast Guard to buy at least two at a time and take out leases on medium or medium-heavy icebreakers from other countries to fill in the capability gap.
"The Navy has gotten used to operating in a world without icebreakers," Kasper said. "That obviously is something to which we’re going to have to change especially as Russia continues advancing on that front."
The Coast Guard asked for $1 billion in fiscal 2017 to gets its new icebreaker project off the ground. The funding is included in the version passed by the House in May, which the Senate is considering.
The program will have the Navy's acquisitions process and funds to push it along, Kasper said, but it will be up to the Coast Guard to get on board with a more ambitious plan.
"The position of Chairman Hunter is this: A two-boat block buy at a minimum and leases that are going to be able to fill gaps," Kasper said. "And he’s not going to take anything short of that. And whether they get there on their own or he has to drag them across the finish line screaming, that’s the only thing he’s going to want to hear."
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT