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$750M Icebreaker Key to Beating Russia, China

As polar ice recedes, access to new shipping routes, fishing grounds and natural resources are at stake.

With all the drama of one federal budget, somewhat in the rear view, many are already looking to key allocations for the 2019 version. 

One of those making its case is the U.S. Coast Guard. It will be requesting $979 million, or about 8.4 percent, more than it asked for in 2018. Perhaps the most significant element of its 2019 budget will be the $750 million needed to begin construction of a new vessel capable of breaking through the ice in arctic regions.

In total, Homeland Security is asking for around $2 billion to recapitalize the Coast Guard's fleet, but the heavy polar icebreaker would be the first such ship added to the fleet in over 40 years. 

Currently, the only such vessel in the Coast Guard’s fleet is the Polar Star, which entered service in the mid-1970s, was refurbished in 2012 and is now well past its projected 30-year service life. In fact, it’s basically being held together by salvaging parts from is sister ship, the Polar Sea. Currently, the Polar Star is the only ship with the ability to support year-round access to Antarctic and Arctic regions.

 So why is this becoming a billion-dollar area of interest for a patrolling force that also protects the $4.6 trillion in economic activity flowing in and out of U.S. ports and waterways? Well, as the amount of polar ice continues to recede, these areas are becoming more accessible. This translates to greater value in terms of new shipping routes, fishing grounds and natural resource exploration.

This fact has not been lost on Russia or China. Russia has four heavy polar icebreakers and China continues to expand their fleet of icebreakers, although they currently lack a heavy ship.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft, who assumed command in 2014, has said he eventually wants to add three heavy and three medium icebreakers. The 2019 budget would also provide $400 million to start construction of two medium-endurance cutters.

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