March 24, 2015 – Washington, DC
Admiral Paul Zukunft, the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), presented the President’s budget request to the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, chaired by U.S. Rep. John Carter (R-TX), on March 24.
In oral testimony, Adm. Zukunft noted the U.S. status as an Arctic nation and the rising level of human activity in the Arctic, including trans-Arctic shipping, ecotourism, and natural resource exploration and extraction. The nation’s fleet of oceangoing icebreakers consists of one heavy icebreaker, the POLAR STAR, and one medium icebreaker, the HEALY. Neither have self-rescue capability if they are damaged on patrol or become trapped in ice.
By reactivating the POLAR STAR, the U.S. has “purchased” up to 10 to recapitalize the icebreaker fleet, Adm. Zukunft explained. The commandant is looking into various options to reconstitute the nation’s icebreaker fleet, but requests top-line relief to the USCG acquisition budget to make this a reality. In written testimony, Adm. Zukunft said the President’s budget request provides resources for USCG to continue pre-acquisition work for a new polar icebreaker, including the development of a request for a proposal.
Subcommittee Chairman Carter, Ranking Member Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), and Full Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) echoed concerns about the increased need for Coast Guard resources and investment while the President’s budget request fails to reflect those needs, particularly in the discretionary budget. Rep. Roybal-Allard suggested a “mismatch of expectations” between the administration and USCG leadership.
During two rounds of questioning, committee members asked many questions about drug trafficking and immigration patrol, but only a few Arctic-related questions were offered.
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) asked Adm. Zukunft about the impact of sequestration on USCG, noting Congress passed 21 continuing resolutions in the last four years. “If you have cuts or reprioritization of funding, there is probably conflict about where the funding should be spent,” he said. “Help us understand your ability to do the mission with the funding problems.”
In response, Adm. Zukunft expressed concern about maintaining an affordable pace for recapitalizing infrastructure to achieve the USCG mission. Passing dozens of continuing resolutions to fund the government on a short-term basis has prohibited the Coast Guard from engaging in major acquisition programs at a time when it needs a predictable, reliable budget that does not experience a 35 percent reduction over four years. USCG needs funds to finish recapitalizing and reinvesting in a number of different cutters to achieve missions, but those concerns “don’t even touch the Arctic domain,” Adm. Zukunft said. “There is no money for me to even address the Arctic.” He added that a $1 billion budget will not allow the USCG to address infrastructure challenges on the horizon when they are “staring me in the face right now.”
Rep. Carter said he recently went to the Arctic with the USCG and saw “dying icebreakers” first hand. He pointed out the President’s budget contains only $4 million for a new icebreaker, with additional funding to assess the seaworthiness of the POLAR SEA icebreaker, which has been out of commission. Rep. Carter asked, “What is the status of the polar icebreaker acquisition? What is the long-term plan for polar icebreaker capacity for the Coast Guard? I understand a new icebreaker is nearly $1 billion, an expensive proposition, but there is a huge need if the Arctic continues to warm as it is.”
Adm. Zukunft replied the decision to reactivate the POLAR STAR buys USCG about 10 years of time to recapitalize the icebreaking fleet, but that was two years ago. He said the current FY2015 budget contains funding for a full assessment of the POLAR SEA to determine feasibility of its reactivation or whether investment in a brand new icebreaker is a better option. However, the U.S. does not currently have shipyards that are capable of constructing POLAR SEA and POLAR STAR hulls, which were built roughly 40 years ago. Adm. Zukunft said, “We clearly need a heavy icebreaker, not a medium. We saw the POLAR STAR rescue a fishing vessel in Antarctica in 150 miles of ice, 14-18 feet thick. We don’t have another icebreaker that can extract the POLAR STAR if it got stuck, and the only other country that could do that is Russia, and that would be a difficult ask in the current environment. Self-rescue capability is necessary, and the U.S. needs to invest in a heavy icebreaker before we consider a medium one.” (Click here for a report about this rescue operation.)
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) asked if the USCG could contract out the construction of icebreakers to private industry. The commandant replied the USCG has looked at many options from reactivating old ships to leasing an icebreaker, but leases are scored up front in the federal government and the USCG would have to pay a 20-year lease right away, as required by federal statute, which can be just as expensive as building a new icebreaker. Rep. Culberson suggested the committee should look into this federal statute that appears to be prohibiting the USCG from leasing an icebreaker, which could be otherwise more cost-effective.
In his written testimony, Adm. Zukunft detailed four central maritime concerns that are addressed in the President’s FY2016 proposed budget: (1) combating trans-national organized crime networks, (2) safeguarding commerce, (3) enhancing and promoting cyber security within ports, and (4) maintaining USCG presence in the Polar Regions.
Additionally, the commandant’s written testimony detailed USCG mobile and seasonal operations and the intent to partner with the coast guards of all Arctic nations via the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. Mobile and seasonal operations include summer deployment during the annual Operation Arctic Shield. This year the operation will assess the capabilities of cutters, boats, and aircraft in the Arctic while working with state, local and tribal stakeholders in order to better understand operational demands in the region while informing the timing and extent of infrastructure needs based on human and economic activity. The USCG will cooperate with the State Department and other federal and international agencies when the U.S. assumes the Arctic Council chairmanship next month.
Archived video of this hearing can be found here and Adm. Zukunft’s written testimony can be found here.
Arctic highlights in the President’s USCG budget request include:
- $1 billion for Arctic Operations. (This is $170 million below the FY15 request and $350 million below FY14 enacted.)
- $4 million for Polar Icebreaker in the Capital Investment Plan, mainly to finish out acquisition design and a proposal request. ($2 million below FY15 request)
The U.S. Coast Guard congressional justification can be found here.