US House, Senate offer differing views on icebreaker acquisition
“The Coast Guard’s mission in the Arctic has expanded dramatically as we are seeing greater activity within the Arctic region,” stated US Congresswoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska at a recent Senate hearing.
“How we make sure these critical assets [like icebreakers and new cutters]...can be most impactful [in the Arctic] is critical”. Murkowski added that she doesn’t believe that the single new icebreaker proposed by the Obama Administration will be enough to fulfill the Coast Guard’s expanded mission in the Arctic.
Murkowski was speaking to US Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, who traveled to Capitol Hill on February 24 to testify before Congress regarding President Obama’s latest 2017 budget request for the Department of Homeland Security.
Secretary Johnson testified before both the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on the Department of Homeland Security. At both hearings, Johnson discussed the Coast Guard’s budget and, more specifically, the funding in FY2017 tabbed for Arctic assets like icebreakers and other cutters.
At both hearings, Arctic discussions centered around the $150 million included in the FY2017 budget that is devoted to accelerating the acquisition of a new heavy icebreaker for the Coast Guard.
At the Senate hearing, Senator Murkowski took the lead in addressing Arctic topics in the budget, largely praising the President’s budget for its attention to Arctic matters as well as expressing satisfaction with the amount of money set aside for the icebreaker acquisition.
Murkowski, who has led the push in Congress in recent years to recapitalize the icebreaker fleet, did, however, have a number of serious questions for Secretary Johnson.
Most notably, Murkowski pressed Johnson on the actual number of icebreakers the Coast Guard plans to acquire. The FY2017 budget only addresses funding for one new heavy icebreaker, while, as the Senator reminded Secretary Johnson, a Coast Guard study actually calls for the acquisition of three new heavy icebreakers and three more medium icebreakers.
May impact other programs
In addition to voicing her concern over the Administration’s commitment to acquiring additional icebreakers beyond the ship that received funding in the FY2017 budget, the Senator also expressed concerned over how the cost of the icebreaker acquisition may impact other Coast Guard programs.
“What I would hate to see is the acquisition of an icebreaker at the expense of other Coast Guard cutters, because we need them both,” Murkowski told Johnson.
Over the course of the hearing Murkowski asked for, and eventually received, assurances from Secretary Johnson that the current drive to acquire a new heavy icebreakers will not have a negative effect on the Coast Guard’s acquisition of National Security Cutters (NSCs), Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs), and Fast Response Cutters (FRCs), all of which reportedly remain on track to be on schedule and on budget.
An Arctic National Security Cutter
Senator Murkowski, however, wasn’t just interested in funding for a new heavy icebreaker. Murkowski also used the hearing as an opportunity to discuss the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter (NSC) acquisition program and its possible impact in the Arctic.
In the omnibus spending bill that President Obama signed this past December, $640 million was earmarked by Congress to build a ninth NSC, in addition to the eight that were originally planned. The NSCs are the largest and most capable cutters the Coast Guard has ever built, and, during the hearing, Senator Murkowski let Secretary Johnson know that she wants to see one of the new ships homeported in Alaska.
Murkowski argued that a NSC berthed in Alaska would be a powerful tool that would help better patrol the Arctic region and meet growing demands. Currently, the closest NSC is stationed in Alameda, California near San Francisco.
Murkowski urged the Secretary that the distance between Alameda and the Arctic is simply too far to be practical.
Secretary Johnson, for his part, was largely non-committal on the question of basing a future NSC in Alaska.
Moving too fast?
At one point during his testimony before the Senate, Secretary Johnson said that “some people think we might be moving too fast” in acquiring Arctic assets for the Coast Guard. In particular, he was referencing the FY2017 budget’s provisions for the acquisition of a heavy icebreaker.
Before testifying before the Senate, Secretary Johnson had earlier in the day met with the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security regarding the FY2017 budget. Like in the Senate, the issue of Arctic asset acquisitions also came up at the House hearing. However, the tone of the House hearing was decidedly sharper than it was in the Senate when it came to icebreaker funding.
Subcommittee Chairman Representative John Carter of Texas noted in his opening remarks that he believes the heavy icebreaker acquisition process is being rushed and that it has an inadequate procurement strategy.
Later in the hearing, Representative Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee also criticized the $150 million set aside for the heavy icebreaker acquisition, stating that he didn’t think the Coast Guard could spend all $150 million in 2017 alone to design the icebreaker, and that if it does, that the design will be rushed.
In reply to the criticism, Secretary Johnson told the subcommittee that the $150 million request for the new icebreaker was justifiable and that the ship is required in order to meet the “national security and increasing commercial needs in the Arctic”.
Johnson added that he is confident the Coast Guard will be able to responsibly spend all $150 million on designing the ship in 2017.
Upon hearing that some members of the House believed the Coast Guard is ‘moving too fast’ in acquiring assets for the Arctic, Alaska Senator Murkowski simply replied, “they haven’t talked to me”.