The Coast Guard’s current fleet of two active polar icebreakers is inadequate to serve the nation’s needs in the Arctic region, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said on Tuesday.

Compared with Russia, which has a fleet of 40 ocean going icebreakers, the Coast Guard’s fleet of two polar icebreakers “quite honestly, it is probably not adequate enough, especially for nation” with a gross domestic product eight times the size of Russia’s, Zukunft told the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot polar icebreaker. Photo: Coast Guard
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot polar icebreaker. Photo: Coast Guard

The Coast Guard has a preliminary design and study effort underway for a new heavy icebreaker, but the cost to build the vessel is pegged at around $1 billion, which is more than the service can afford. Zukunft told the panel that the Coast Guard would need to have its top line budget increased to make room for the acquisition of a new icebreaker.

The Coast Guard recently contracted with Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] to construct the last of eight high-endurance National Security Cutters. Now the Coast Guard’s top acquisition priority is the medium-endurance Offshore Patrol Cutter, which is expected to cost at least $10 billion for 25 vessels, leaving little margin for other major recapitalization projects without budget relief.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said that the White House Office of Management and Budget needs to recognize that recapitalizing the heavy icebreaker fleet is “a government-wide need, not just the Coast Guard.” She asked Zukunft about the possibility of having an icebreaker funded by the Navy and then given back to the Coast Guard to operate.

The Coast Guard Chief said it “would not be unprecedented” to share in the budgeting for an icebreaker given the number of federal agencies with “equities in a heavy icebreaker.” In addition to the Coast Guard, these include the National Science Foundation, the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Interior, Transportation, and the Arctic Research Council.

“There’s probably a committee of at least six or seven that have equities in the Arctic but the point you make, an icebreaker may say Coast Guard but it’s U.S., it’s an instrument of U.S. sovereignty, it’s a national asset. I would put this right in the same realm as a carrier strike group.”

The Coast Guard’s two operational polar icebreakers are the 420-foot cutter Healy and the 399-foot cutter Polar Star.