The chairman of the House panel that provides annual funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) questioned the $150 million the Coast Guard is seeking in FY ’17 to begin design of a new Polar Icebreaker, saying the service would only be able to obligate $25 million of those monies in that fiscal year.

Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, said he is in favor of a new heavy icebreaker, but “this funding request precedes a sound procurement funding strategy.”

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, when asked about the icebreaker design funds later in the hearing that examined his department’s overall budget request, said the acquisition schedule is “aggressive,” but “we disagree” with Carter and that the funding can be spent in FY ’17, acknowledging though that “it will be tough.”

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Photo: DHS
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Photo: DHS

Johnson said the reason the department and Coast Guard “believe” that they can spend all of the requested icebreaker funds is because of the “urgent need” for the vessel for Arctic missions. “Given the national security and increasing commercial needs in the Arctic, we think it’s important that we get a second one and get a second one very soon.”

Coast Guard budget documents included with the service’s $150 million FY ’17 request for the new icebreaker says the funds will give it “maximum flexibility to implement an optimal acquisition approach.” The documents show that only $25 million would be obligated FY ’17, consistent with Chairman Carter’s concern that the service is requesting more than it can spend next year on design activities for the new icebreaker.

The Coast Guard has said during FY ’17 it only plans to get through development of a Request for Proposals (RFP) for detailed design of the polar icebreaker, which only requires $25 million, a congressional official told Defense Daily.

The Coast Guard currently operates one aging heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, for icebreaking missions in the Arctic and Antarctic, and another medium icebreaker, the Healy, for similar missions. President Barack Obama last September said he would accelerate plans for construction of a new heavy icebreaker with production expected to begin by 2020, two years ahead of schedule.

A notional schedule released by the Coast Guard in January shows that a draft RFP for the new polar icebreaker will be issued in the first quarter of FY ’17 and a final RFP in the fourth quarter of FY ’17 or first quarter of FY ’18 with a contract award anytime between the fourth quarter of FY ’18 and fourth quarter of FY ’19 (Defense Daily, Jan. 14).

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft has been saying that DHS plans to buy multiple icebreakers but he hasn’t specified how many. A mission need statement developed by the service says three heavy and three medium icebreakers are needed to fulfill Coast Guard missions in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Johnson told the panel, and later the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, that adding the new icebreaker program to the Coast Guard isn’t squeezing out other key recapitalization efforts the service has underway, particularly in regards to its surface assets.

On other matters, Carter told Johnson that the chance is “slim to none” that Congress will agree to a request by DHS to raise more than $900 million in funding for aviation security needs for the Transportation Security Administration through fee increases on air travelers and carriers. Later in the day, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), chairman Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommitee, said basically the same thing as Carter.