Major questions about Coast Guard and Navy plans to build new polar icebreakers

September 17, 2018

As the Coast Guard and Navy prepare to build their first new heavy polar icebreakers in more than four decades, a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warns that the $10 billion program should be delayed until the costs and delivery dates of the ships are sorted out.

GAO analysis found the program’s estimated construction time of three years to be “optimistic” and “as a result, the Coast Guard is at risk of not delivering the icebreakers when promised and the potential gap in icebreaking capabilities could widen.”

The report could slow the push to revamp Coast Guard and Navy capabilities to navigate the resource-rich Arctic region amid rising concerns that the U.S. is falling behind the Kremlin’s efforts to beef up Russia’s much-larger fleet of icebreakers.

The Coast Guard now has just three icebreakers, including one that does primarily scientific research, with all vessels aged long past their projected lifespans.

Russia, which has the world’s largest Arctic coastline and ports across the region, reportedly has at least 40 icebreakers, including four operational nuclear-powered icebreakers and 16 medium-sized craft.

In a sign of the growing strategic struggle for control over the Arctic, earlier this year, The Washington Times reported that the Coast Guard confirmed that the proposed new icebreakers would be designed to carry heavy weapons including cruise missiles.

The Kremlin has also unveiled plans to develop two new icebreaker vessels armed with cruise missiles, which are expected to enter the Russian fleet within the next two years.

Backers of arming U.S. icebreakers say the move is long overdue. But opponents argue it sends a dangerous signal to Moscow that Washington is looking for a fight over the Arctic that would scuttle the cooperation between nations that currently exists there for rescue missions and research.

Budget hawks have also warned that the cash-strapped Coast Guard may be trying to take advantage of rising tensions in the polar regions to pursue a potentially costly and ultimately unnecessary weapons program.

The GAO appeared to partially agree with the budget hawks, noting in its report, which was released earlier this month, that the proposed heavy polar icebreakers (HPIB) program lacked “a sound business case” and may have underestimated both the costs and the amount of time it would take to deliver the ships.

It also criticized the program for not fully assessing “how well key technologies will work in this particular effort” and offered six recommendations to the Navy, Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security, which is also involved because it oversees the Coast Guard during peacetime.

Those recommendations include that the program re-evaluate its cost estimates and technology needs.

Politics is also contributing to the program’s issues. A DHS request for $750 million to start construction of the first ship was initially approved earlier this year in the U.S. military’s 2019 budget.

But DHS later reportedly considered shifting the funds to pay for U.S.-Mexican border security.

Carlo Muoz contributed to this report.

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