Hunter Pushes Coast Guard on Commercial Icebreakers

Rep. Duncan Hunter questions Adm. Charles Michel

Published Jul 12, 2016 9:47 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Tuesday, the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Marine Transportation held hearings into the U.S. Coast Guard's icebreaking and arctic capabilities. 

Subcommittee Chairman Duncan Hunter opened the hearing with a stinging rebuke, cricizing the USCG for the long delays in determining whether to reactivate the laid-up icebreaker Polar Sea to fill in after her sister ship Polar Star reaches the end of her useful life.

"What is the plan, in the short-term, to fill this hole?," he said. "Just shy of three years after the deadline mandated in statute for making a determination of whether it is cost-effective to reactivate the Polar Sea, and six years since the vessel has operated, the Coast Guard will provide the Committee a report on the condition of the vessel.  But don’t anyone worry that the Service is moving too swiftly or without deliberate care.  We have been assured the material assessment will contain no recommendations for action.  This is the start of the process to see if she can be reactivated.  Further information will not come until the Alternative Analysis is sent to Congress at the end of the calendar year."

"Time is ticking away and the vessels in the Coast Guard ice breaker fleet are either inoperable, aging and in need of extended time in dry dock, or incapable of working in ice covered areas," he added. "Not a good situation to be in, but here we are."

Adm. Charles Michel, the Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said that the service agreed with Hunter's concern with the length of time needed to deliver a new vessel, and with the resulting expected gap in ability. But in response to the congressman's questions on the Polar Sea, he gave a pessimistic preview of the Coast Guard's report on her condition, warning that "based on what we know now, I can tell you that refurbishing [her] would be a significant undertaking, and would likely far exceed the cost and scope of work that was needed to reactivate Polar Star" in 2013. 

As to the possibility of chartering or buying a capable commercial icebreaker on the world market, Adm. Michel repeated his testimony from earlier hearings, saying that "we have not yet identified any available multi-mission medium or heavy icebreakers suitable for military service," anywhere in the world. 

The panel asked what the service’s plan to fill a future gap might be, given the aging Polar Star and the high cost of reactivating Polar Sea. In questioning, Ms. Jennifer Grover, director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said that the USCG had "no set plan" for dealing with the expected capability gap, "although the Coast Guard is working on it." Adm. Michel contested that characterization, suggesting that the Coast Guard would look at refurbishing one of the two existing heavy icebreakersHe consistently ruled out the use of a commercial vessel. 

Representative Hunter aggressively questioned the notion that a vessel “suitable for military service” was required for breaking ice, and compared the Coast Guard's stated requirements to those for the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship, which is designed using commercial standards and deployed in a combat role.

Hunter went through the list of the Coast Guard’s four key performance requirements for a heavy icebreaker, pushing Adm. Michel to acknowledge that a commercial vessel could complete all four required tasks. 

Michel responded that the Coast Guard "does not operate commercial vessels . . . this is not a pickup game for us," he said. "This vessel does not just break ice, just like the Polar Star does not just break ice, these are for the assertion of national sovereignty through warships of the United States."

"And none of us are going to see one of those while we're here," replied Rep. Hunter, referring to the decadal time scale for designing and constructing a military-grade replacement.

Hunter asked the admiral and the panel for drafting assistance for new language allowing the Coast Guard to operate a commercial vessel on a short term bareboat charter – an alternative which is not currently allowed by law. 

Separately, Heather A. Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) warned that buying new icebreakers would not solve Arctic national security problems, and that the extended debate ran the risk of distracting lawmakers from larger issues.

"Let us be clear: one icebreaker is not a silver bullet, nor is it a substitute for enhanced satellite communications, aviation assets, deep-water ports, navigational aids, and internationally approved  hydrographic mapping," Conley said.  "It does not enhance our military’s cold weather fighting capabilities. It does not build new U.S. Coast Guard operating bases or stations above the Arctic Circle, which would improve search and rescue or maritime deployment in the Arctic, which now constitutes a minimum of eight hours by air and days by sea . . . These extremely limited capabilities I have just highlighted call into question the ability of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Government to be able to perform basic national security tasks in the Arctic.”