Alaska appeals for icebreakers

A state leader says the Coast Guard must catch up in its response to the melting Arctic

President Obama isn’t the only elected official who opposes the idea of shrinking the Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet.

Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell was set to tell House lawmakers on Thursday that his state needs the Coast Guard to patrol the less-frozen North with ships and aircraft that can handle the extreme conditions up there. In an interview before the hearing of the House Transportation Committee’s Coast Guard Subcommittee, Treadwell said the U.S. is getting left behind.

Russia has announced it will build nine new icebreakers, Treadwell said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. Treadwell was in the room in September, he said, when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he wanted the Arctic sea route to be as important as the Suez Canal.

At least 18 vessels made trans-Arctic voyages last year, Treadwell said, and the United States is not prepared if there’s a wreck.

“We feel we’re pretty naked right now with the increased shipping in the Bering Strait,” he said. “Because a lot of them are carrying fuel, crude oil, oil products, and none of them have contingency plans that tie in with the state of Alaska or the federal government.”

But as our Air Force friends might say, it’s going to take a drug deal to make any progress on getting the Coast Guard new ships anytime soon.

A Congressional Research Service report by shipbuilding expert Ron O’Rourke last month quoted a Coast Guard study that said it would take between eight and 10 years to design, contract and build a new icebreaker. Plus replacing the service’s two main ships, the Polar Sea and Polar Star, could cost a lot. Not a lot by the standards of the Pentagon, which today sneezes billions of dollars, but a lot for the Coast Guard, which tends to struggle with budgets and acquisitions as compared with the four larger DoD services.

Here’s how it all breaks down: If the Coast Guard sticks by a 2010 study about the potential future of Arctic operations, it has a notional requirement for six icebreakers, three heavy and three “medium.” According to the 2010 Naval Operations Concept, the Coast Guard would need 10 ships, six heavy and three medium breakers, to maintain the “continuous presence” the document calls for.

OK. Per CRS, one new icebreaker could cost $856 million; two could cost $1.7 billion; three would cost $2.4 billion; four would cost $3.2 billion; five would cost around $4 billion; and six would cost about $4.7 billion. The iron laws of shipbuilding apply — unit costs go down as total quantities go up. But first somebody would have to stand up and make a case to Congress to spend that kind of money in Austerity America.

There’s another problem: The best warships in the world are built in the United States. But American yards do not have a lot of experience building the kind of heavy-duty icebreakers the Coast Guard needs. The yard that built the polar rollers, up in Seattle, is long gone. So in a perfect world, the best option for the Coast Guard might be to send its requirements to a Finnish builder and then fly its crew over to take delivery. But first somebody would have to stand up and tell Congress to send hundreds of millions of dollars worth of work to a foreign shipyard.

Behind all these decisions is the same basic question, asked many times by Treadwell and others: Whether the U.S. will decide what it wants to do about the Arctic before there’s a sinking, an oil spill or some other major event up there — or whether it’ll be forced to afterwards.