US Coast Guard Commandant: Icebreakers key to Arctic presence

8 11 2010

USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB-11) alongside her sister ship Polar Star (WAGB-10) near McMurdo Station, Antarctica. (Wikipedia CC)

The Coast Guard’s top officer says the service does not have the resources to respond to a major emergency in the Arctic and is calling for funding to repair or replace its two broken heavy icebreakers.

“We need icebreakers up [in the Arctic], and right now our icebreakers are in a sorry state,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp said in an Oct. 28 interview. “They need replacement or very thorough renovation to allow the United States to sustain an active presence and support our sovereignty up there.”

The need for icebreakers in the Arctic stems from the rapid disappearance of ice in those waters. More water means more shipping traffic through the Bering Strait and other Arctic waterways. It also means massive untapped mineral reserves will be available to nations that border the Arctic, including the U.S. and Russia, creating a rush to stake sovereignty claims.

The mission of protecting U.S. sovereignty and its citizens and shipping should fall to the Coast Guard, Papp said.

“That’s our responsibility,” he said. “It’s water — we’re concerned about there being more water and more activity on the water; it’s clearly a Coast Guard responsibility.

“So, I feel the need to advocate for restoring our icebreakers or replacing them.”

The service’s heavy icebreakers, Polar Star and Polar Sea, have both been sidelined.

The Coast Guard announced in July that Polar Sea had suffered an engine breakdown and would likely be out of service until January. Polar Star is undergoing repairs and renovation and will out of service until 2013.

As a result, Papp said, the Coast Guard is suffering a brain drain of sorts, losing institutional knowledge about icebreaking operations.

“Because of the condition of the icebreakers, we are rapidly losing that expertise, and we don’t have the resources to respond up there to a major emergency,” he said.

In addition to increased shipping traffic, Papp said as the ice recedes, standard Coast Guard services such as search-and-rescue missions will be required.

“I foresee greater numbers of fishing boats, even recreational boats going up there,” he said. “And we even have residents there already in towns such as Barrow [at Alaska’s northern tip].

“[These are people] who need to be supported by Coast Guard resources. We don’t have the resources right now.”

Papp said the Coast Guard had been evaluating what resources he would need to support an Arctic mission, but he noted that sending current assets up there presented a “zero-sum game.”

“If I were to put resources up there, it would have to come at the expense of another place,” he said.

Source: Navy Times

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