Although the Coast Guard’s plan for acquiring its first new heavy polar icebreaker in more than 40 years is within sight, current out-year budget plans don’t provide funding for additional icebreakers, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft told a House panel on Wednesday.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s panel that oversees the Coast Guard, said during a hearing that the service’s budget request for acquisition programs goes from nearly $1.9 billion in FY ’19 down to $1.4 billion in FY ’20. Zukunft replied that most of the $500 million drop is related to the heavy polar icebreaker program, noting that the service will need additional funding in the out-years to keep the program going.

Out-year budget figures cited by Hunter are contained a table the Coast Guard provided the subcommittee from its forthcoming Capital Investment Plan for fiscal years 2019 through 2023, a spokesman for the service’s acquisition directorate told Defense Daily.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

“And that is a concern when I see that precipitous of a drop because that drop is mostly in [the] polar icebreaker building program,” Zukunft told Hunter. “So that is a significant add-on that we’re going to need going forward.” Later in the hearing, Zukunft said that keeping the icebreaker program on track is the “greatest risk” if the Coast Guard’s acquisition account continues to be underfunded.

“There is going to be tension as we look at how do we fund other priorities within the Department of Homeland Security and a concern that I will pass on to my relief is you may enter another cycle of flat-lined budgets at a point in time where our needs are continuing to grow, particularly in this domain,” Zukunft said.

The Coast Guard’s current program of record is to acquire three new heavy polar icebreakers and eventually three new medium polar icebreakers. Earlier this month the Navy, on behalf of an integrated program office with the Coast Guard, released a Request for Proposals for detailed design and construction of the first new vessel.

Responses to the solicitation are due by May 11. Zukunft said that when a decision is ready to award a contract for final design and construction of the first ship, “we’ll be in a position to make a decision on a block buy.” The block buy refers to awarding a single contract that would cover multiple years of procurement for the icebreaker program, in this case likely the final two heavy vessels.

The Coast Guard is seeking $750 million in FY ’19 for the detail design and construction of the first new heavy icebreaker. Congress appropriated $150 million in FY ’17 in the Navy’s shipbuilding account toward the icebreaker. Language in the FY ’18 National Defense Authorization Act authorizes the Navy to procure one heavy polar icebreaker that would be operated by the Coast Guard.

The icebreaker program in the FY ’19 request is the beneficiary of a two-year congressional budget deal to increase spending for the Defense Department and federal civilian agencies for FY ’18 and FY ’19. The Coast Guard’s original plan was for $30 million for the heavy icebreaker, but once the budget deal was agreed to, the Trump administration amended the FY ’19 request to add $720 million for the icebreaker, which keeps the program on track for an award in FY ’19 and delivery in 2023.

Rep. James Garamendi (D-Calif.), ranking member on the subcommittee, told Zukunft he wants the Navy to fund construction of the first new heavy icebreaker and sees the Coast Guard’s FY ’19 request as a down payment for the second and third vessels.

Hunter said that after FY ’20 Coast Guard budget documents don’t show the acquisition account seeking more than $1.7 billion.

Zukunft, who will retire from the Coast Guard at the end of May, has maintained that the service needs an annual appropriation of at least $2 billion for acquisition to meet its recapitalization needs.

In his written statement to the subcommittee, Zukunft noted that the service’s acquisition programs are on time and budget.

“To better guide our modernization, we developed a Long Term Major Acquisitions Plan (LTMAP), a roadmap to field modern platforms to address 21st century threats,” Zukunft stated. “We have been working with the administration to finalize the details of the LTMAP and are committed to delivering this report to Congress as soon as possible.”

The Coast Guard currently has one heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is 42 years old and nearing the end of its service life. Zukunft told the panel that the plan for the legacy icebreaker is to be able to keep it in service through 2025, which allows a “smooth hand-off between the Polar Star and the next heavy icebreaker,” cautioning that this will mark a return to the “status quo, though, and we’re still only a nation of one heavy icebreaker, which means we need to continue to build out that program of record.”

Zukunft said the shipbuilding industrial based needs predictable budgets, noting that U.S. shipbuilders haven’t built a heavy icebreaker since the Polar Star.

Five contractors are currently working under design study contracts that helped the Coast Guard shape the RFP for the heavy icebreaker. These five contractors–Bollinger Shipyards, General Dynamics [GD], the U.S. shipbuilding division of Italy’s Fincantieri, Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII], and VT Halter Marine, which is part of Singapore’s ST Engineering–are expected to bid for the ship.

The Coast Guard currently operates one medium polar icebreaker, the Healy, which was commissioned in 1999. The program for new medium icebreakers is less urgent than for the heavy vessels given that the Healy isn’t near the end of its service life.