December 07, 2011

Read This Now: Coast Guard - Observations on Arctic Requirements, Icebreakers, and Coordination with Stakeholders

On December 1, 2011, the Government Accountability Office
released a new report on the
Coast Guard’s Arctic capability that is worth reading in full
. The report
cautions that “the most
significant issue facing the Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet is the growing
obsolescence of these vessels and the resulting capability gap caused by their
increasingly limited operations

It is particularly interesting to read the report in the
context of the budget debate taking place on Capitol Hill. The authors of the
report rightly acknowledge that expanding the capability necessary to accomplish
the Coast Guard’s Arctic missions is particularly challenged by budget
constraints and uncertainty about how much the Department of Homeland Security’s
budget may decrease. According to the study:

Senior Coast Guard officials, based
in Alaska, reported that resources for Arctic operations had already been
reduced and were inadequate to meet existing mission requirements in Alaska,
let alone expanded Arctic operations. These officials also reported a more than
50 percent year-to-year reduction between 2005 and 2009 in the number of large
cutters available for operations in their region. Officials also expressed
concern that the replacement of the 12 older high-endurance cutters with 8 new
cutters may exacerbate this challenge. Given the reductions that have already
taken place, as well as the anticipated decrease in DHS’s annual budget, the
long-term budget outlook for Coast Guard Arctic operations is uncertain. The
challenge of addressing Arctic resource requirements in a flat or declining
budget environment is further underscored by recent budget requests that have
identified the Coast Guard’s top priority as the recapitalization of cutters,
aircraft, communications, and infrastructure—particularly with regard to its
Deepwater program. Recent
budget requests also have not included funding for Arctic priorities, aside
from the annual operating costs associated with existing icebreakers

In a less-than-sanguine outlook, the report’s authors state

Coast Guard faces budget uncertainty and it may be a significant challenge for
the Coast Guard to obtain Arctic capabilities, including icebreakers. Given our
analysis of the challenges that the Coast Guard already faces in funding its
existing acquisition programs, it is unlikely that the
agency’s budget could accommodate the level of additional funding (estimated by
the High Latitude Study to range from $4.14 billion to $6.9 billion) needed to
acquire new icebreakers or reconstruct existing ones.

The debate about Arctic
capability won’t go away anytime soon. I’ll be particularly interested to see
how much this issue flames up in 2012 when Russia is expected to file a claim to
the extended continental shelf, which
may enable Moscow to seize about 380,000 square miles of what is generally
considered international territory in the Arctic