Coast Guard Commandant: Recapitalization Number One Priority (UPDATED)

By Allyson Versprille

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Recapitalizing the Coast Guard’s fleet of aging vessels is the sea service’s number one priority, said its commandant April 14. The Coast Guard currently sails some ships that are over four decades old and that often break down. As the service takes on more diverse missions around the globe, it will need an upgraded fleet of cutters, said Adm. Paul Zukunft.

“What is the Coast Guard’s number one priority? It’s recapitalizing,” he said during a speech at Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference.

The service is currently procuring its national security cutter and fast patrol cutters. It is also eyeing an offshore patrol cutter that will help fill critical gaps, he said.

“The number one [priority] for me during my watch, and we will downselect next year, … is the offshore patrol cutter,” he said. The OPC will be critical to the future of the Coast Guard as a seafaring service, he noted.

“We need that middleware,” he said.

The Coast Guard wants to purchase 25 of the vessels. Last year, the service awarded three firm fixed-price contracts for the preliminary and contract design stage of the vessel to Bollinger Shipyards Lockport LLC, Eastern Shipbuilding Group Inc. and General Dynamics-Bath Iron Works. Delivery of the first cutter is slated for fiscal year 2021.

Zukunft said the national security cutter and fast patrol cutter acquisitions have gone smoothly and are on time and on budget.

“I’m running my ships, I’m getting great results, I’m a responsible steward,” he said. “[So] can you please invest in the 21st century Coast Guard? Can you help me out?”

Zukunft noted that the Coast Guard has begun taking a significant role patrolling the Western Hemisphere as the Navy focuses on the Asia Pacific and the Middle East. The Western Hemisphere has becoming increasingly volatile over the past few years and the drug trade and gang violence grips countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

The service also faces a capability gap in its polar icebreaker fleet. The service has a statutory requirement to maintain the nation’s polar icebreakers, but it only has two, the Polar Star and the Healy.

The Star recently came out of a multi-million dollar refurbishment to keep it operational for seven to 10 years. The Healy, a medium-duty vessel, was commissioned primarily for scientific research.
A third icebreaker, the Polar Sea, is mothballed.

Zukunft said a new heavy-duty icebreaker — which has been estimated to cost $1 billion — is a critical need, especially as Arctic ice melts and opens up new waterways. He noted that a cruise ship will sail through the Northwest Passage next year, and more tourism will come. If there is a major disaster, the Coast Guard will not be able to effectively respond with its current assets.

“What if you have a Titanic event up in the Arctic today? I will not be surprised if that were to happen,” he said. “Rest assured, I’ll probably have an appropriation for an icebreaker the following year. But we are not ready for a mass casualty today in the Arctic domain.”

The United States is soon to take the helm of the Arctic Council, a multi-national group that encompasses Arctic states, including the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.

He noted that he recently met with member states, but cannot have an effective conversation unless Russia is there. Tensions between Russia and the West have been on the rise since the Crimean crisis.

“I can’t have that dialogue if I don’t have Russia at the table,” he said. Russian President “Vladimir Putin will not be with us forever. But we cannot put our relationships that we’ve had over the years in cold storage during that time.”

Russia, Zukunft noted, has 27 ocean-going icebreakers even though the United State’s gross domestic product is more than eight times that of the country.

“These are national assets when you look at access to the Arctic domain, and we’re the most prosperous nation in the world,” he said. “We need to wake up to what’s happening around us.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the start of the United States' chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Additionally, a photo caption incorrectly stated the name of the Polar Sea.

Topics: Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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