National Security

Arctic Posture (Part I): An Unprepared and Underfunded U.S. Coast Guard

By way of Alaska’s 60,000 mile coastline, the United States is one of the world’s eight Arctic nations. However, many in the U.S. fail to understand the significance of this relatively unexplored frontier. Outside the Cold War, the United States has invested very little to secure its position as a global leader in Arctic affairs.

As climate change continues to result in unprecedented levels of polar ice cap melting, the Arctic is becoming an increasingly significant area of geopolitical concern. Consequently, many have called on the United States to ensure not only freedom of navigation in the Arctic’s emerging commercial shipping lanes, but also access to the region’s vast mineral and energy deposits. Given its current posture in the region, however, the American political and military establishment appears grossly under-prepared to lead in the Arctic environment. A whole of government approach is therefore required to ensure that America’s long-term national interests in the region will remain secure for generations to come.

Unfortunately, the Coast Guard, which is responsible for conducting maritime patrols in the region, faces a number of challenges such as sequestration, and inconsistent budgeting in Congress has undermined the sea service’s efforts to modernize its fleet for the opening Arctic. In particular, the Coast Guard will soon find itself in dire circumstances if Congress is unable to authorize the necessary funds to procure additional polar icebreakers – one of the key tools for any nation seeking to project power and operate in the Arctic.

Like Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia – the seven other Arctic nations – the U.S. is under pressure to build up its Arctic infrastructure as polar ice caps continue to melt. The receding polar ice caps increasingly allow for more commercial interest in the region where previously inaccessible natural oil and gas reserves may now be within reach. Likewise, increased commercial interest in the region has led some countries to significantly buildup their Arctic military infrastructure. In particular, Russia has gone so far as to create new Arctic brigades, ships, and airfields – in addition to its 17 operational polar icebreakers.

In its 2010 High Latitude Mission Analysis Report, the Coast Guard found that adequate U.S. presence and capability in the polar regions requires at least three heavy and three medium polar icebreakers. These icebreakers are capable of clearing sea lanes of thick polar ice for commercial and military vessels operating in Arctic waters. Currently, the Coast Guard only operates one of each and faces a challenge in maintaining the 39 year old heavy icebreaker, USCG Polar Star. Consequently, the Coast Guard began looking into acquiring a new heavy icebreaker, costing $1 billion for a single hull. However, the Obama Administration has cut five-year funding for the project by 81% since FY2013.


Funding for Acquisition of New Polar Icebreaker Under FY2013-FY2016 Budget Submissions

(millions of then-year dollars)

  FY13 FY14 FY15 FY16 FY17 FY18 FY18 FY19 5-year total
FY2013 budget 8 120 380 270 82       860
FY2014 budget   2 8 100 20 100     230
FY2015 budget     6 4 100 20 100   230
FY2016 budget       4 10 2 100 50 166
Source: Coast Guard FY2013-FY2016 budget submissions


In other words, rather than receiving $508 million through FY2015, the program has only been allocated $9.6 million. Further adding to the problem, the Obama Administration’s polar icebreaker request in FY2016 was a mere $4 million.

Such delay in funding has created an uncertain and dire operating climate for the Coast Guard. According to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation:

The operational status – more accurately, the non-operational status – of the icebreakers is creating mission gaps.  The older the icebreakers get, the longer it takes the Administration to come up with a replacement plan, the closer we are to end-of-service life for the icebreakers, or, worst case scenario, we find ourselves without icebreakers.

In an attempt to remedy this problem, the Obama Administration announced on September 1, 2015 that it would jumpstart production of an additional polar icebreaker by two years from a previously unpublicized date of FY2022, providing a procurement date of FY2020. As Congressional Research Service analyst Ron O’Rourke notes, this “acceleration” is still “a two-year deferral from the FY2018 date implied in the FY2013 and FY2014 budget submissions.”

Furthermore, even with a procurement date of FY2020, the additional polar icebreaker will not come into service until 2024 or 2025. Given that the USCG Polar Star’s expected service life will end between December 2019 and December 2022, O’Rourke estimates that “there will be a period of perhaps two to six years during which the United States will have no operational heavy polar icebreakers” if the Polar Star is not further extended or the Polar Sea repaired.

For years, budget cuts and inconsistent funding by Congress has undermined the Coast Guard’s efforts to prepare for the challenges of an emerging Arctic. If action is not taken, the U.S. will have virtually no naval capabilities in an increasingly important strategic region for an interval of at least two years. Congress should uphold its responsibility to provide for the common defense by ensuring that the Coast Guard has the resources it needs to protect U.S. waters.