Coast Guard, Navy face major questions about cost, delivery dates for new polar icebreakers


By Dan Boylan - The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2018

As the Coast Guard and Navy prepare to build their first new heavy polar icebreakers in more than four decades, a new government audit is warning that the $10 billion program should be delayed until questions about the cost and delivery dates of the ships can be sorted out.

An analysis by the Government Accounting Office earlier this month found the program’s projected construction time of three years to be “optimistic” and “as a result, the Coast Guard is at risk of not delivering the icebreakers when promised and the potential gap in icebreaking capabilities could widen.”

The congressional watchdog’s report could slow the push to revamp Coast Guard and Navy capabilities to navigate the resource-rich Arctic region, where melting ice and warmer seasons have spurred soaring interest in the economic and military value of the region. Officials have also expressed concerns that the U.S. is falling behind the Kremlin efforts to beef up its much-larger fleet of icebreakers.

The Coast Guard now has just three icebreakers, including one that does primarily scientific research, with all vessels long past their projected life spans.

Russia, which has the world’s largest Arctic coastline and ports across the region, reportedly has at least 40 icebreakers, including four operational nuclear-powered icebreakers and 16 medium-sized craft.

In a sign of the growing strategic struggle for control over the Arctic, earlier this year, the Coast Guard confirmed that the proposed new icebreakers would be designed to carry heavy weapons including cruise missiles. The Kremlin has also unveiled plans to develop two new icebreaker vessels armed with cruise missiles, which are expected to enter the Russian fleet within the next two years.

Backers of arming U.S. icebreakers say the move is long overdue. But opponents argue it sends a dangerous signal to Moscow that Washington is looking for a fight over the Arctic that would scuttle the cooperation between nations that currently exists there for rescue missions and research.

Budget hawks have also warned that the cash-strapped Coast Guard may be trying to take advantage of rising tensions in the polar regions to pursue a costly and potentially unnecessary weapons program.

The GAO appeared to give new ammunition the budget hawks, noting in its report, that the proposed heavy polar icebreakers (HPIB) program lacked “a sound business case” and may take longer and cost more to deliver.

It also criticized the program for not fully assessing “how well key technologies will work in this particular effort” and offered six recommendations to the Navy, Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security, which is also involved because it oversees the Coast Guard during peacetime.

Those recommendations include that the program re-evaluate its cost estimates and technology needs.

Politics is also contributing to the debate over the program. A DHS request for $750 million to start construction of the first ship was initially approved earlier this year in the U.S. military’s 2019 budget. But Homeland Security officials later were reportedly considered shifting the funds to U.S.-Mexican border security programs.

Carlo Munoz contributed to this report.