Last week, the US Senate passed a defense bill that includes plans to fund up to six new Arctic icebreakers.
The annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) sets out the Department of Defense’s budget and programs for the 2018 fiscal year. The bill passed by the Senate last week authorized almost $700 billion in defense spending. However, the Senate and House will have to vote on separate legislation to actually provide the funding for the provisions in the NDAA.
The largest single authorization of icebreakers ever
There was great bipartisan support for the bill, which was passed in a vote of 89 to 8. There has also been significant bipartisan support when it comes to the funding for US Arctic icebreakers over the last few years. Among the lawmakers who have pushed for icebreaker funding are Sens Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), John McCain (R-AZ) and Angus King (I-ME).
Senator Sullivan was pleased with the bill and said at a press conference last week that it was the “largest single authorization of icebreakers ever” and that this shows that “America intends to secure its interests in this critical part of the globe.”
Opens for contracts with the Navy
The icebreaker fleet is operated by the US Coast Guard, which is under the Department of Homeland Security. However, the new NDAA specifically opens for the Coast Guard to enter into contracts with the Navy for the procurement of new icebreakers. This is also in line with what was decided by the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee for FY2017 last year. The subcommittee then decided that the funding for one icebreaker would come entirely from the Navy’s shipbuilding account, rather than the US Coast Guard’s significantly smaller shipbuilding budget.
An ageing icebreaker fleet
The ageing US icebreaker fleet has been a center of attention in debates regarding stronger US involvement in the Arctic, especially during the US chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which ended earlier this year.
Currently, the US Coast Guard operates one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is nearly 40 years old and was only intended for a 30-year service life. With the opening of the Arctic, new resources and shipping routes have become more accessible. Increased human activity raises a need for protection of the environment as well as people. A functioning US icebreaker fleet is vital for operating in the challenging Arctic environment, and to respond to possible emergencies, oil spills and disasters.
In comparison, Russia’s icebreaker fleet consists of more than 40 icebreakers. This big difference has by many been called an “icebreaker gap”.
How many icebreakers does the US need?
The Coast Guard has pushed for funds for new icebreakers for several years. A 2013 polar icebreaker Mission Need Statement by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated that the Coast Guard will potentially need up to six icebreakers to “adequately meet mission demands in the high latitudes […]”.
Since this, the Coast Guard and lawmakers have taken further steps to update the icebreaker fleet.
The Coast Guard’s 2017 acquisition budget request was the largest in history according to Adm. Zukunft, Commandant of the US Coast Guard. This budget significantly increased the funding for a polar icebreaker in order to accelerate the process. The Coast Guard’s proposed 2018 budget requests acquisition funding for a polar icebreaker that the Coast Guard wants to start building in 2019.
According to a September 2017 Congressional Research Service report, the Coast Guard’s current icebreaker program sets out to procure three new heavy polar icebreakers: delivered in the fourth quarter of FY2023, the second quarter of FY2025, and the second quarter of DY2026, respectively. Only one of these ships are now partially funded.
Authorization act does not mean appropriation
Although the NDAA has authorized funding, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will in the end decide if the icebreaker fleet will in fact receive the funding that has been recommended. The NDAA is on this area more of a set of recommendations that the Appropriations Committees can decide to either adopt, reject or change.
We will therefore have to wait until the House and Senate Defense Appropriations Committee votes over specific appropriation bills to see how much funding the icebreaker fleet actually receives.