Coast Guard Icebreaker Program in Jeopardy
Photo: Coast Guard
The Coast Guard’s high-priority effort to beef up its icebreaker fleet is at risk due to potential funding cuts and schedule delays.
The United States only has one operational heavy polar icebreaker — the Polar Star — an aging vessel which came online in the 1970s. The Coast Guard aims to buy six icebreakers in the coming years, including at least three heavy variants, as sea ice melts and peer competitors such as Russia and China increase their presence in the Arctic region.
The president’s fiscal year 2019 budget request called for $750 million for the icebreaker program.
A Senate homeland security appropriations bill would fully fund the effort. But a House version would strip all of the funding for the icebreaker, while providing $5 billion for a controversial wall and related technologies on the U.S.-Mexico border. President Donald Trump has threatened a government shutdown this fall if robust funding isn’t allocated for his border wall project.
“What the hell are we doing here?” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Transportation subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, said of the funding proposal.
“The money for the icebreakers was eliminated,” he said at a recent hearing. “This is a particularly bad choice.”
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, who recently took the helm as the service’s top official, said he was caught off guard.
“You get to Washington … the icebreaker is tracking, you’re feeling pretty good, then suddenly the House mark doesn’t have the icebreaker,” he said at a recent think tank event in Washington, D.C.
Vice Adm. Michael McCallister, deputy commandant for mission support, said the $750 million cut would upend the program. The Coast Guard plans to field the lead heavy icebreaker by 2023, when the Polar Star is expected to reach the end of its operational life.
“The schedule is going to be at risk,” he told lawmakers. The Coast Guard is slated to award a detailed design and construction contract in 2019, and purchase items such as long-lead time materials for the second vessel, he noted. “We are not going to be able to do that without that $750 million.”
The Government Accountability Office is warning that the program might not achieve its planned fielding date even if the requested funding is appropriated.
“The Coast Guard did not buffer any timeframes in the schedule other than the six months between the target date and then the baseline date of when the lead ship should be delivered,” said Marie Mak, GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management.
Major acquisition programs often experience funding delays, equipment delays or rework based on testing, she noted. “None of that is incorporated in their schedule baseline. So our concern is that the schedule is already very, very optimistic assuming the Coast Guard will receive that” $750 million, she added.
In an interview with National Defense, Schultz acknowledged that the service has “a fairly aggressive” timeline for acquisition of the lead ship. “But I’m not going to walk that goal back,” he said. “Our objective target is 2023 for that vessel to be in the water.”
At the think tank event, the commandant said he is “guardedly optimistic” that Congress will ultimately appropriate the $750 million for 2019 after the House and Senate reach agreement on a compromise spending bill.
A final homeland security appropriations bill might not be passed until after the midterm elections “because of the contentiousness,” he said.