Alaska’s two U.S. senators are among a bipartisan group of 23 Senate members who signed a letter to the White House budget director earlier this month expressing grave concern about President Donald Trump’s proposed 11.8 percent funding reduction for the Coast Guard next year.
With Alaska having more coastline than any other state, it’s easy to see why Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan put their names on the letter.
The Coast Guard has a significant presence in Alaska. The Guard’s complement in the state includes about a dozen cutters, three air stations, six marine safety units, three small-boat stations and many navigation and support facilities.
Yet that presence is inadequate in today’s race for the Arctic. More and more, other nations are eyeing Arctic resources and business opportunities and are looking to exploit waterway openings created by a reducing ice pack. And as nations look to the polar North for wealth, their military forces increase.
Russia is chief among those nations. And the growing Russian interest in the Arctic is something that the Untied State — and particularly Alaska — should be wary of.
Russia has 41 icebreakers and 11 more in various stages of planning and construction. And the U.S.? The U.S. has the 41-year-old Polar Star heavy icebreaker and the 17-year-old Healy medium icebreaker. That’s it for active icebreakers.
A report in the respected magazine Foreign Policy says Russia in recent years also has established a new Arctic command, four new Arctic brigade combat teams, 14 new operational airfields and 16 deepwater ports.
Even China, far from the Arctic, is building a polar icebreaker, which is expected to launch in 2019. It is reported to be able to remain at sea for as many as two months and have a range of 20,000 nautical miles, a distance roughly equivalent to the Earth’s circumference at the equator.
On the point of another polar icebreaker for the United States, the senators’ letter says the U.S. is facing a potential eight-year gap in its ability to break heavy polar ice from the time the Polar Star retires and a new icebreaker is commissioned. Delaying construction of a new icebreaker would be “irresponsible,” according to the letter.
It’s an accurate statement.
The Coast Guard budget, the letter from the senators notes, has been declining since 2010. Its acquisition budget alone dropped 40 percent from 2010 to 2015, a decline reversed somewhat by Congress the next year.
The letter — signed by three Republicans, 19 Democrats and one independent who caucuses with Democrats — states that the Coast Guard’s “operational tempo is unsustainable as its infrastructure continues to age and becomes technologically obsolete.” It says the nation needs to invest in priority items such as polar icebreakers, national security cutters, offshore patrol cutters, fast response cutters and Great Lakes icebreakers.
The senators also brought attention to the human element by noting, as they see it, overdue attention to improving the support services for Coast Guard families. Areas of concern include the lack of sufficient military and civilian health care networks in some locations and child care.
The letter acknowleges the larger budget difficulty facing the nation but also flatly states that the proposed $1.3 billion reduction in the 2017-18 budget contradicts President Trump’s priorities of enhanced maritime safety and increasing investment in the nation’s military. Implementing the reduction would cause “catastrophic negative impacts” to the Coast Guard, it reads.
Assembling the annual budget in Washington is a complicated process in which neither the White House nor Congress — or Republicans and Democrats, for that matter — knows for certain how insistent the other will be on this or that proposal. The budget that President Trump has proposed for the Coast Guard is only a proposal. Congress will have a lot to say as it revises his blueprint.
With the Arctic undergoing great change and receiving attention from various other nations, however, it would seem that it is time to strengthen, not further erode, the Coast Guard, whose mission is “to protect the public, the environment, and U.S. economic interests — in the nation’s ports and waterways, along the coast, on international waters, or in any maritime region as required to support national security.”
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, March 17, 2017