Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz on Wednesday said he is “guardedly optimistic” that Congress will appropriate the requested funds for the service’s first new heavy polar icebreaker in over 40 years, adding that he was surprised that House appropriators didn’t include funding for the ship in their markup in July of the fiscal year 2019 homeland security bill.

Schultz said the appropriations process is “long” and said the Trump administration is supportive of the new icebreaker as are Senate appropriators, pointing out that the House and Senate appropriators still have to work out their differences in conference.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz. Photo: Coast Guard
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz. Photo: Coast Guard

Schultz has been commandant for two months after spending nearly two years as commander of the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area, and a concurrent assignment as director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Joint Task Force-East.

“You get to Washington, the icebreaker is tracking, you’re feeling pretty good and then suddenly the House mark doesn’t have the icebreaker,” Schultz said at a maritime domain awareness event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  

“I’m going to take a guardedly optimistic approach that this thing has a lot of ground to cover and there’s still a lot of interest in getting an icebreaker to replace our 40–plus year old Polar Star which is the only heavy icebreaker in the U.S. arsenal, which is Coast Guard.”  He added that, “We need that ship now.”

The Coast Guard has a medium polar icebreaker, the 19-year old Healy, which is geared toward research and science missions. Once the service acquires three new heavy icebreakers, it has a requirement for three new medium icebreakers.

The Coast Guard is seeking $750 million in FY ‘19 for the first of what it hopes will be three new heavy polar icebreakers. The service is currently planning to select a contractor in FY ’19 to build the vessels with delivery of the first in 2023. Senate appropriators fully funded the request but House appropriators cut it in favor of spending more money on physical barriers along the southern border.

Congress previously has appropriated $359.6 million toward the polar icebreaker program, including $300 million in the Navy’s shipbuilding account. Ronald O’Rourke, a Naval analyst with the Congressional Research Service, said in a report in May on the Coast Guard’s polar icebreaker program that the Coast Guard and Navy believe the cost for three heavy icebreakers would be about $2.1 billion.

Schultz said he’s talking with his leadership team to possibly name the new icebreaker, when it’s built, the Polar Security Cutter, to help secure the nation’s “national sovereign interests” and contend with “competition” in the Arctic region. “We’re talking about the Coast Guard being the face of the competition and we’ve really got to press into that,” he said.

On the topic of the Coast Guard’s Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC), Schultz expects the first production contract to be awarded to Eastern Shipbuilding this fall and the company to begin cutting steel on the 360-foot vessel in late September or early October. Last September, the service awarded the company a $41.7 million contract for long-lead time materials for the first ship.

The Coast Guard plans to procure a fleet of 25 OPCs to replace 27 legacy medium endurance cutters. Schultz said the new cutters will be over-the-horizon boats, equipped with shipboard-launched unmanned aircraft systems and an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter. He said the first ship will be on the “waterfront” in 2021.

The House and Senate have fully supported the Coast Guard’s $400 million request for a second OPC in FY ’19. Those funds include long-lead materials for the third ship.