Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft on Thursday said he would prefer that the construction spending for the planned new heavy polar icebreaker be accounted for in his service’s budget rather than the Navy’s given its priorities to expand its fleet of Naval vessels.

The Navy wants to build to a fleet of more than 350 surface and subsurface vessels from less than 300 currently and with the “pressure” on its future budgets that this recapitalization effort will bring, the icebreaker “is a program where we would be in a much safer place if we had the appropriation in a Coast Guard budget versus DoD,” Zukunft told the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee (HAC-HS) in a hearing to examine the Coast Guard’s requirements and acquisition plans.

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

Senate appropriators last fall proposed providing $1 billion in the FY ’17 Defense Appropriations Bill for the polar icebreaker to be built within the Navy’s account, even though the ship would essentially be owned and operated by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard has previously expressed concerns that it can’t afford to fund the icebreaker in its budget unless additional funds are provided just for that ship, lest spending for its other acquisition needs be pushed aside.

The FY ’17 omnibus appropriations act signed by President Donald Trump earlier this month contains $150 million in the defense portion of the bill for advance procurement funding for the icebreaker so that a contract for detailed design and construction and long-lead materials could be awarded in FY ’19 to meet the goal of a delivery in FY ’23. The omnibus measure says “The Coast Guard is encouraged to budget for follow-on efforts.”

Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee, said he doesn’t like that language.

The Coast Guard’s requirement is for three new heavy and three new medium polar icebreakers. The rough cost estimate on the heavy icebreakers is about $1 billion a vessel although Zukunft said he is working with the Navy to get that cost down.

But Carter warned that icebreakers are “big ticket items,” adding that “a billion dollars for us means a lot of things have to go wanting in other areas of homeland security.” He said he’s “all in for the icebreaker program” and believes in the requirement for six new vessels, “But as I look down the tunnel of time” it’s possible that the Trump administration may increase the homeland security budget. However, he said, “let’s be honest, let’s be practical. This is a big-ticket item. So, I’m hoping the Navy won’t bail out on us.”

Zukunft told the panel that his concern is the investments that Navy is going to have to make in the out-years to get to its new goal of a 355-ship fleet. This would put at “at risk” the idea that Navy’s budget would also pay for the icebreakers, adding “That is a risk I’m not willing to take in the out-years.”

The Coast Guard chief said the capacity exists within the Coast Guard to hold onto the icebreaker if the Navy’s commitment to the program wanes.

“We will have to work very hard to make sure we don’t lose this appropriation, Zukunft said. “We certainly have the capability, the capacity within our acquisition program to see this program through.”

In addition to the $150 appropriated for the icebreaker in the Navy budget, the omnibus bill includes $25 million within the Coast Guard’s acquisition account to fund the Coast Guard-Navy Integrated Program Office to manage the acquisition.

The Trump administration is expected to release its FY ’18 request for federal departments and agencies on May 23.

The Coast Guard currently operates one heavy polar icebreaker and one medium polar icebreaker. The heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, is old and nearing the end of its service life, while the medium icebreaker Healy entered service in 2000. The Coast Guard wants six icebreakers so that it can have at least one icebreaker operating in the Arctic and Antarctic at all times.

Earlier this year the Coast Guard awarded industry study contract to five contractors to flesh to help flesh out requirements and designs for the new heavy icebreaker, part of a risk reduction effort before it seeks bids to design and build the ship.

Zukunft said his top acquisition priority remains the medium-endurance Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC). He expects the contract for long-lead production materials to be awarded later this year to prime contractor Eastern Shipbuilding, adding that the program remains on track in terms of schedule and budget.

The Coast Guard plans to buy 25 OPCs. Currently, the most expensive program in the Coast Guard’s acquisition budget is the National Security Cutter (NSC), which is being built by Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII]. So far HII has received funding for nine NSCs and the omnibus bill contains long-lead production funds for the 10th ship.

The Coast Guard’s program called for eight NSCs but Zukunft said that requirements have expanded for the Coast Guard since the original program established and that the service will have no trouble butting the ninth ship to good use, as well as a 10th if fully funded.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is committed to funding 12 NSCs to replace 12 retiring Hamilton-class high endurance cutters.