The Coast Guard is down to one operational icebreaker, a less than favorable situation given the increased role the service is being asked to take in the Arctic.
The service used to have eight icebreakers, but all but one have been decommissioned or are in disrepair, commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. told a Feb. 13 Center for Strategic and International Studies conference.
A second icebreaker will be ready to return to action next year, he said, speaking just hours before the release of President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal.
That document contains $8 million to “initiate acquisition of a new polar icebreaker to ensure that the nation is able to maintain a surface presence in the Arctic well into the future.”
Washington insiders are suggesting that the Coast Guard also take money from a program for new large cutters and spend it on icebreakers and less expensive ships.
But the future of the nation’s maritime security depends upon ships such as the National Security Cutter that are effective away from the shore, Papp said.
The service is in good shape with a substantial fleet of patrol boats to deal with threats close to the shore, he said. He also feels comfortable with the assets the service has in the nation’s ports. But there is a security layer he worries about.
“So if you’re inspecting overseas and you have good resources in the ports, you want some sort of middle layer to be able to intercept any threats before they get into your ports,” Papp said. “Unfortunately for us, that is the most expensive layer that we deal with, because in order to do that you have to have stout capable ships that have high-endurance and speed.”
This “middle layer” of maritime security is hard for the Coast Guard, he said.
“How do you provide persistent sovereign presence in the offshore waters? You can’t do it with patrol boats. It takes ships and ships are expensive,” he said.
Coast Guard officials have been fighting for funding to get eight National Security Cutters to replace the 378-foot high-endurance cutters that have been in service since the 1960s. The third NSC was delivered to the Coast Guard last fall. A $482 million contract for the fifth has been awarded to Huntington Ingalls Industries. And Obama’s budget includes funding for a sixth.
The funding for the rest is far from certain. During a January speech at the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium, the commandant said the NSC will remain in competition for dollars with smaller, less expensive Offshore Patrol Cutters that can be built quicker.
The Coast Guard wants eight NSCs to replace 12 high-endurance cutters that have an average age of 43 years. The OPCs would replace medium-endurance cutters, some of which are even older.
Even if the Coast Guard was able to secure funding for all eight NSCs, the service’s total fleet of high-endurance ships eventually will be reduced by 11, Papp said.
“I just don’t get it — why we’re not building more ships in this country,” he said.
The Coast Guard would like to send one of the new cutters to Alaska to deal with increasing activity in the Bering Strait. Obama’s 2013 budget also provides $6.1 million to the Coast Guard to recapitalize and expand helicopter hangars and aviation refueling facilities in Alaska.
“These investments will sustain the Coast Guard’s ability to establish effective presence in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Chain — the ‘gateway’ to the Arctic,” the budget document says.