U.S. House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard & Maritime Transportation

The Federal Radionavigation Plan and two bills, the Foreign Spill Protection Act (HR 1684), and the National Icebreaker Fund Act of 2015 (HR 3214) were the subjects of this hearing in the House Coast Guard & Maritime Transportation Subcommittee on July 28.


During the hearing, Rep. Don Young of Alaska requested requested an independent study to investigate the costs associated with the different funding models for icebreakers. Rep. Young also offered sympathy for the Coast Guard’s deficiencies, given that it is the failure of Congress and the President to provide adequate funding for its budget and for icebreakers.


The witnesses at the hearing included the following:

  • Gary C. Rasicot, Director of Marine Transportation Systems for the U.S. Coast Guard. He testified on the current phase of the icebreaker acquisition program and reconfirmed the Coast Guard’s focus on implementing an alternative system to GPS.
  • Mary E. Landry, Director of Incident Management and Preparedness for the United States Coast Guard, full written testimony available here.
  • Karen Van Dyke, Director of Positioning, Navigation and Timing & Spectrum Management for the U.S. Department of Transportation, testified on finding backup systems for GPS, focusing on the Long Range Navigation System (LORAN).
  • Martin Faga, former CEO of the MITRE Corporation and former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, testified about a complementary system to GPS.


Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), subcommittee chairman, said in his opening statement U.S. icebreakers have supported numerous executive agency missions and the Coast Guard should not bear the budget burden for building an icebreaker. The draft National Icebreaker Fund Act has been modified to include construction as an allowable use.


Rasicot said the Coast Guard’s current icebreaking activity in the Arctic and Antarctic is occurring with the minimum number of assets necessary, but maintaining this level of activity will become riskier as assets age.


The antiquated systems of the POLAR STAR and HEALY—both on active duty status—require extensive, costly and time consuming maintenance. In addition to sparse assets, maintenance facilities for large icebreakers are limited, creating more pressure for the crew.


Rasicot said that the acquisition program is currently in the analyz and select phase, which involves establishing asset requirements and evaluating the alternatives for achieving them.


Upon completion of the future milestone to select a preferred material, the Coast Guard will develop a formal acquisition plan. The President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2016 includes $4 million for pre-acquisition activities. A single new heavy icebreaker will sustain the current capacity, but additional assets may be needed for increased human activity in the Polar Regions.


Rasicot said one of the Coast Guard’s responsibilities under the Federal Radionavigation Plan (FRP) is to establish, maintain, and operate aids to maritime and air navigation, as well as electronic aids to navigation systems. The Coast Guard provides system operations and maintenance with the Maritime Differential Global Positioning System (MDGPS), which is available to the public.


Over time, MDGPS public use has declined, along with a lack of carriage equipment. The Coast Guard is finalizing a federal notice that will provide the public with an opportunity to comment on a proposed plan for continuing differential coverage in major ports and waterways.


Rep. John Garamendi


Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH) questioned Rasicot about using icebreakers in the Great Lakes. Currently, the U.S. contracts icebreaking duties with Canada.


Rep. Don Young (R-AK) asked about leasing icebreakers or the possibility of a public-private partnership, citing the Coast Guard’s previous reluctance to consider leasing as a serious option. He also requested an independent study to investigate the costs associated with the different funding models.


Rep. Young added that the Coast Guard shouldn’t be blamed for current deficiencies because of the Congress’s failure to adequately fund its budget, leaving no doubt as to why the Coast Guard had never been able to secure funds for a new icebreaking project.


Van Dyke testified about backup Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) capabilities and the future of Nationwide Differential GPS (NDGPS).


She said that modern transport-category aircraft with inertial systems may be able to continue navigating safely for a period of time after losing PNT position updating, but inertial performance without PNT updates degrades with time and will eventually fail to meet airspace requirements.


NDGPS augments GPS by providing increased accuracy and integrity using land-based reference systems. Currently, future investment decisions beyond FY2016 are being analyzed.


Both of these topics will be discussed in depth at the next meeting of the National Space-Based PNT Executive Committee in September.


Rep. Garamendi grilled Van Dyke on the failure of the U.S. Department of Transportation to provide an alternative GPS system, asking if a singular agency was needed to carry out the implementation of GPS alternatives. Rep. Garamendi threatened to press forward if this issue isn’t resolved soon.


Faga testified about the critical importance of establishing a complementary system for GPS. He said GPS is an effective system that is critical to U.S. infrastructure, but it is a low-power space-based signal that can be disrupted by many sources, including space weather, collisions, error, and intentional actions. The Department of Homeland Security “reports that it is important to all categories of infrastructure and critical to 13 of the 16,” he said.


In 2008, enhanced Long Range Navigation (eLoran) was identified as the best means to complement GPS. Rep. Garamendi (D-CA) asked about the feasibility of a new eLoran system. Faga confirmed a LORAN system would be feasible in many different capacities, and that four LORAN transmitting stations could accurately keep track of time (for a sticker price of $40 million) while 19 stations could accurately track location.


Faga added that the system could also be a source of new revenue. A service contract could be structured for the eLoran system to pay for itself over the first ten years. Her written testimony included ideas about revenue sources and the provisions that the government should include in such contracts or agreements.