Can two ships be called a “fleet”? If so, that’s the size of the Coast Guard’s ice-breaking fleet, plus one more that’s in the shop and may never return to service. Still, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft says he has so few multi-purpose cutters that the Coast Guard can only stop 20 percent of the known drug shipments in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The admiral says that allows international crime, terrorism and human trafficking to flourish with relative impunity.
“With our limited arsenal of ships and aircraft, this is truly an issue of capacity. And this is why the off-shore patrol cutter is our No. 1 recapitalization priority,” he said.
The Coast Guard procurement plan adds 91 new ships to replace an old cutter fleet that’s prone to time-sucking breakdowns. Total cost: more than $21 billion. The commandant says if the Coast Guard is going to build icebreakers, too, he’s going to need a bigger budget. Zukunft says it would be a good investment.
“This is part of our national infrastructure, if you will, in terms of our ability to exert influence and sovereignty in the Arctic domain,” he said.
Some in Congress have pressed the U.S. Navy to chip in for a new billion-dollar icebreaker, but a Navy official balked last month, telling a House panel the service has its own ship-building needs.
Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska chaired the Senate hearing. Sullivan says everyone seems to recognize the need for more icebreakers, but paying for it seems to be a matter of political football.
“You know, clearly the Russians in this area are eating our lunch, despite what you mentioned is a country whose size in terms of the economy is well below that of the United States,” Sulllivan said.
Russia is said to have 40 icebreakers. Of those in operation, four are in the heavy duty class. About half of the Russian fleet is medium and small icebreakers that are privately owned. While many of Moscow’s ships are reaching the end of their expected life span, that country has 11 new icebreakers planned or under construction.
Zukunft says he’s still cooperating with his Russian counterparts, so those Russian ships should be considered assets that might be called on to respond to an American search-and-rescue case.
“As we look at what are the real threats as we see in the Arctic, think beyond Vladimir Putin,” he urged. “And the real threats continue to be safety of life at sea, environmental, the well being of the indigenous tribes that have lived up in the Arctic region for the millennium.”
In the near term, despite the lack of a U.S. Coast Guard port in the Arctic, Zukunft says they are preparing for the likelihood that Shell will resume exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea this year.
“And we will have a rotational presence of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, and a national security cutter, and a shore-based aviation detachment, based in the Arctic region this summer,” he said.
The commandant also addressed Alaskan concerns that the seven island-class patrol cutters now based in Southeast and the Gulf of Alaska will be replaced by six fast-response cutters. Yes, Alaska would lose a patrol boat, but Zukunft says the new cutters will be able to operate over more days, in harsher conditions and travel further from home.