What others say: Critical neglect in the Arctic

  • Tuesday, April 19, 2016 7:54pm
  • Opinion

There aren’t very many areas of national defense or homeland security where the U.S. lags. America’s military power is second to none and great emphasis has been placed on securing airports, borders and shipping lanes. But there’s an aspect of the U.S. strategic posture in which the nation is lagging far behind its neighbors, leading to vulnerability with regard to defense, security, shipping and trade. At issue is the lack of U.S. icebreaker capacity, about which Alaska’s delegation in Washington, D.C. has been fighting a long, lonely battle to get their fellow lawmakers and the Pentagon to recognize and correct. Finally, that recognition may be coming — but there is much more work to be done before the U.S. catches up.

The U.S. has a grand total of two icebreakers, operated by the Coast Guard: The heavy icebreaker Polar Star and the medium-duty icebreaker Healy. They have served the country long and well, with the Polar Star now a decade past its scheduled decommissioning date and lacking in important features that would help it complete Arctic missions. The nation’s third icebreaker, the Polar Sea, was the sister ship to the Polar Star, but suffered catastrophic engine failure in 2010 and now appears permanently out of commission, having been stripped of many of its parts.

If you think this is an odd state of affairs for the most powerful country in the world — one medium-duty icebreaker, one heavy icebreaker past the end of its design life and a third that has been effectively junked — you’re right. There’s no way the U.S. would permit this lack of capacity with regard to air superiority or safeguards for soldiers. But when it comes to influence and operating capability in Arctic regions, which are poised to become economically and strategically crucial to geopolitics as sea ice diminishes in coming decades, lawmakers from the Lower 48 turn a blind eye. For Alaskans and the state’s delegation in Washington, D.C., it’s maddening.

Not all nations are similarly behind in developing the necessary means to explore, operate and secure the territory off their Arctic coasts. Russia has 40 operating icebreakers and 11 in production. Given that nation’s tendency to aggressively operate in its own territory and adjacent territory that it seeks to control, the stakes for the U.S. in securing its Arctic waters are high. In fact, the situation has already become so critical that it was necessary for a Russian ship to deliver fuel to Nome during a fuel crisis in 2012, because no American ships had the capacity to reach the icebound community.

Alaska’s senators have long carried the torch for making icebreakers a priority for the U.S., to little avail. Former Sen. Ted Stevens championed the cause, as did his successor, Sen. Mark Begich. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has herself been fighting for more icebreakers for more than a decade, and now Sen. Dan Sullivan has joined her. A bill he’s co-sponsoring with Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the Coast Guard Icebreaker Recapitalization Act, calls for $150 million to refurbish the Polar Sea. This would provide at least some capacity for the U.S. if the Polar Star’s end of life comes before a new icebreaker can be built, as the Coast Guard expects will be the case.

President Barack Obama has included $150 million in his proposed budget to begin the construction of a new icebreaker, but the Republican leadership in the House and Senate has already expressed skepticism about paying that budget much mind. Even in the best case, if that funding is retained in the budget that passes out of Congress, it will be an estimated 10 years and $1 billion before the U.S. gets its new icebreaker.

Sen. Sullivan’s bill is crucial for the U.S., as is the lease or purchase of an icebreaker from the private sector or a friendly nation (the latter option would require a waiver of the Jones Act requiring all U.S. ships be U.S.-built). The U.S. lack of operational ability in Arctic waters is at crisis levels, and it shouldn’t take a disaster to wake the rest of the country up to a situation Alaskans have been warning about for years.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,

April 15

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