Lawmakers are urging the Coast Guard to lease foreign icebreakers until the service can build a new one with the Navy's assistance. Coast Guard officials prefer repairing the broken icebreaker Polar Sea in the meantime.
It would take the Coast Guard more than a decade to build a new polar icebreaker. To try to cut that time in half, it's joining forces with the Navy's well-oiled acquisition machine.
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."
Hunter, who chairs the subcommittee, envisions bolstering the United States' arctic presence via a new U.S.-built icebreaker acquired through a Navy program and leasing icebreakers from other countries in the meantime. However, the service is adamant that there isn't an icebreaker for rent in the world that would be up to the Coast Guard's military specifications.
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.
Polar Sea is in drydock because it's too old and broken down to operate. Polar Star operates about six months a year before heading back to the yards for repairs. The Coast Guard has suggested overhauling Polar Star to extend its service life or investing money into reactivating Polar Sea to fill the current gap, and an assessment for Polar Sea is due to Congress at the end of the month.
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.
"You’ve always hated the idea of not owning the ship, but we have a gap here," Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, told Michel. "How are we going to do it if you don’t accept another vessel?"
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."