Passage of the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act earlier this month came with much fanfare by Alaska’s two U.S. senators, especially over the bill’s inclusion of funding for six icebreakers.
“The legislation bolsters our military’s cold weather capabilities, and sends a firm signal that Congress expects to see the construction of six new polar icebreakers,” reads a news release from the office of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted that the defense authorization legislation included the acquisition of up to six heavy, polar-class icebreakers for “the first time ever” and that the action was “long overdue.”
“This year’s authorization, coupled with an updated Department of Defense Arctic Strategy, starts to signal to the world, that because of Alaska, we are an Arctic nation and that we will protect our interests in this critical region,” he stated in a news release following the Aug. 1 passage of the bill.
So you get the idea that this is a super-high priority of Alaska’s senators.
But funding for projects is a two-step congressional process in which uncertainty abounds. First comes an authorization bill, in this instance the National Defense Authorization Act. Authorization bills for the various federal departments don’t provide the money, however. They are simply the road map for spending. The actual allocation of funds to pay for things in that road map comes through the appropriations bills for each department.
Although Congress has approved the National Defense Authorization Act, it has not yet provided the dollars. And that is where the icebreakers have presently run aground.
There’s a difference of opinion between the pro-icebreaker version of the Department of Homeland Security funding bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee and the House version, which redirects that money to President Donald Trump’s wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. Neither bill has yet come to a full vote in its respective chamber.
We need the icebreakers.
The national security threat in the Arctic is clear and present as Russia looks to expand into the region for its oil and gas resources and to establish military dominance. China and Norway are also looking to bolster their Arctic fleets.
While the issue of illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border is a concern, so too is the issue of the Russian government’s migration into the Arctic. Russia has an Arctic icebreaker fleet that puts the U.S. fleet to shame. Describing U.S. government icebreakers as constituting a “fleet” is a bit of a laugher. We have two, and only one of them — the medium-duty USCGC Healy — serves in the Arctic. The other, the USCGC Polar Star, works in the Antarctic.
How many icebreakers does Russia have? 46. It also has 11 under construction and four others in planning, according to a May 2017 chart created by the U.S. Coast Guard. Two of those — the nuclear-powered Ural and Sibir — are natural gas tankers, each 1,000 feet long. At about 164 feet wide, they will be the widest tankers ever built, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
That same news report, from just last month, contained a quote from Russian President Vladimir Putin that should alarm U.S. leaders and the Alaska congressional delegation.
“This is perhaps the largest step forward in our developing of the Arctic,” President Putin said at the opening of an LNG facility 375 miles north of the Arctic circle. “Now we can safely say that Russia will expand through the Arctic this and next century. This is where the largest mineral reserves are located. This is the site of a future transport artery that I am sure will be very good and efficient: the Northern Sea Route.”
The ever-growing Russian icebreaker fleet is an essential part of that nation’s Arctic expansion plans.
The United States needs icebreakers. It needs them as soon as possible. Congress should provide the funds to begin implementing the icebreaker program that it called for in the National Defense Authorization Act.
—Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Aug. 11, 2018