In referring to this video I will identify the position on the recording in the format h-hours (omitted for the first hour), m-minutes, and s-seconds (may be omitted) as 1h22m45s would indicate one hour, 22 minutes and 45 seconds into the video.
Note: it doesn’t really start until 10m24s
On July 12, 2016, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Coast Guard and Maritime Transporttion Subcommittee held a hearing on “Coast Guard Arctic Implementation Capabilities.”
- ADM. Charles Michel, Vice Commandant United States Coast Guard
- Ms. Allison Stiller Principal Civilian Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Research, Development and Acquisition United States Navy Department of Defense
- Ms. Jennifer Grover Director Homeland Security and Justice Issues United States Government Accountability Offic
- Mr. Ronald O’Rourke Specialist in Naval Affairs Congressional Research Service
- Ms. Heather A. Conley Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic Center For Strategic and International Studies
- Mr. Matthew O. Paxton President Shipbuilders Council of America
Admiral Michel’s written statement for the subcommittee can be found here.
Mr. O’Rourke’s written statement can be found here. For background you might also reference his earlier report. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress Ronald O’Rourke Specialist in Naval Affairs May 27, 2016
The discussion was wide ranging. Topics inluded:
- Gaps in icebreaker availability and coverage
- US Shipyard building capacity
- US Defense requirements in the Arctic
- Arctic infrasturcture
- The possibility of leasing or chartering
- The possibility of a “block buy”
- Medium Icebreakers
- The possibility of a Mass Casualty incident in the Arctic
- Single mission vs Multi-mission ships!
- Military vs Civilian construction standards
I’ll try to comment on some of this. It is the nature of the hearing process that topics may be revisited at any point in the hearing, so it may a bit difficult to follow any particular topic.
It was not a specific topic of discussion, but a high level of frustration was apparent throughout the proceeding. It was evident in Representative Hunter’s opening remarks. Check out the sarcasm at minute 13. This was followed shortly by Representative Garamendi’s remarks about the extent of planning that has failed to bear fruit. (15m30sec). There are more comments throughout the hearing. The comments between the representatives and the Vice commandant get particularly hot about 1h57m. One representative went so far as to call one of the Vice Commandant’s answers “bull shit.”
There was much talk about the gap. This usually referred to the expected gap between the projected end of service life for the Polar Star and the delivery of the new Polar Icebreaker (PIB), which may begin as early as 2020 or as late as 2023 and should end in 2026 with the delivery of the PIB. But if you consider the new PIB will be fully operational only in 2028, this gap may be anywhere from five to eight years. But this is not the only gap.
We want heavy icebreakers because of their capacity to operate in the Arctic year round. As long as we only have one heavy and one medium icebreaker, we will never do that, because the Heavy will always be sent to Antarctica during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, while the medium icebreaker will be sent to the Arctic during the summer, so there will be a seasonal gap in the Arctic. We will never have “assured year round access to the Arctic” as long as we only have two icebreakers.
Because we deploy only one icebreaker to the Arctic and only one to the Antarctic there is always a gap in the capability to come to the aid of one of these icebreakers. This is a particularly serious concern with regard to sending the Polar Star to the Antarctic. There is of course great distance, and because it is probably the most capable icebreaker sent to Antarctica, it is also the most capable of getting itself in the deepest trouble. the Additionally the Polar class have never been particularly reliable.
The remaining gap that might be discussed is the difference between what we have and the three heavy and three medium icebreakers we have been saying we need.
Currently there is “No plan to address the gap” (58m). While the Vice Commandant says we are looking into alternatives, he suggests that a rolling life extension (spreading the work over successive yard periods) for Polar Star, rather than a renovation of Polar Sea appears the most likely way to retain a heavy icebreaker in service. That would of course be no improvement over our current situation (2h13m).
Three U.S. Navy icebreakers push an iceberg to clear a channel leading to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, 1965
Mr Paxton (President Shipbuilders Council of America) reported that there are ten US shipyards interested in building the PIB, and they have a demonstrated capability to work steel exceeding the thickness and quality required for Polar Icebreakers (m44-48).
Ms. Conely’s (Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic Center For Strategic and International Studies) prepared testimony suggest that in terms of our defense posture in the Arctic, we have been living on good luck and borrowed time (m37-44). She heavily emphasized the need for infrastructure in the Arctic. I was a bit surprised at the apparent depth of concern among the Representatives for defense operations in the Arctic.
There were several unfavorable references to the comparison between our icebreaker fleet and the Russian’s, but that was mitigated somewhat by explanations for the Russian’s greater interest in the Arctic. Still the tone was that we were well behind. Additionally Representative Young expressed frustration that he had seen no progress in addressing his concern about military aspects of security (1h21m).
Discussion of Defense in the Arctic lead perhaps inevitably to questions of “Why isn’t this a Navy mission?” and a discussion of the need for Military specs for Icebreakers? (1h3m)
There was somewhat surprising support for creation of infrastructure in the form of a deepwater port and airfield (1h45m).
Can the Coast Guard operate leased or chartered vessels?
Ms Grover indicates that to perform certain Coast Guard mission, the vessel needs to be a “public vessel” meaning government owned or a demise (bare boat) charter (31m).
Demise charter is a contract whereby the ship owner leases its vessel to the charterer for a period of time during which the whole use and management of the vessel passes to the charterer. In such a situation, the charterer pays all expenses for the operation and maintenance of the vessel. Officers and crew become servants of the charterer. A demise charter whereby the charterer has the right to place its own master and crew on board of the vessel is called a bareboat charter.
The Vice Commandant reported that the Coast Guard had been unable to locate any heavy icebreakers available for lease or purchase and that while there were single misssion medium icebreakers built to commercial standards available there were no multi- mission icebreakers suitable for military service “without a major refit.” (55m)
There was also testimony that normally leasing would cost more than purchase over the long term. Mr O’Rourke clarified that a shorter term arrangement that he referred to as a charter was a possibility and it had been done in the past (1h53m).
It appears to me we find ourselves in an unusual circumstance. We definitely have a gap in our capabilities, and while I would agree that leasing is usually more expensive than ownership, we find ships sitting idle while their owners have abandoned the purpose for which they were built. They might be available at favorable terms.
Actually, we have a recent example of a civilian owned icebreaker being first chartered and then purchased outright for naval service.
The Royal Navy’s HMS Protector (A173) required a refit of only ten days to convert it from Norwegian civilian icebreaker. The ship was initially chartered for three years in 2011 but was then purchased outright in 2013. Over her relatively short life as a Royal Navy vessel in addition to icebreaking she has done SAR, fisheries patrols, inspection of research stations to ensure compliance with the Antarctic Treaty, resupply, hydrographic survey operations, performed training for humanitarian assistance, and patroled to demonstrate sovereignty in the waters around Britain’s South Atlantic Overseas territories.
The Navy has a lot of experience chartering ships, including having them modified for naval service.
Mr. O’Rourke’s prepared testimony primarily addressed the possibility of a block buy purchase of two or more heavy icebreakers (33m to 37m). His opinion is that a block buy of two heavy icebreakers would save at least $100M and perhaps as much as $200M.
The Vice Commandant stated he could only support the construction of one heavy icebreaker (1h8m). I find it hard to understand why our leadership cannot simply state they would welcome additional resourses. (There is a pattern here, I saw the same thing happen in another hearing.) No one expects Coast Guard admirals to establish priorities across all government programs, that is the job of the civilian Administration and Congress, but when asked, if we would like more assets, and particularly if there is already an established requirement for more assets, why not say yes? It is after all other peoples’ job to decide if it will fit in the budget.
The idea of a block buy was generally well recieved. By the end of the hearing Representative John Garamendi stated that it appeared to make the most sense to proceed with block buy of two (or three) icebreakers (2h8m). He ask for assistance with the wording to be inserted into a bill to authorize a block buy. “I’m in the mode to make a decision.” (2h10m)
Canadian shipbuilder Davie’s proposal (pdf) to convert the Aiviq for the Canadian Coast Guard
There is as yet, no idea when there will be a budget request for new construction medium icebreakers. The planning process is just beginning. We will build heavy icebreakers first, with the first completed by perhaps 2026. It will probably be four years more for the second and third. We probably cannot expect new construction medium icebreakers before 2032, sixteen years from now. We are not likely to see three medium icebreakers until 2034.
When the Vice Commandant stated that there were none available for lease or purchase suitable for military service without substantial refit (1h51m), that is not a final answer. It really just the start of a discussion. Considering the two potentially available domestically built icebreakers, what would be required to bring them up to our minimum standards? What would it cost? We should keep in mind that, we may have higher standard in mind for future icebreakers, but the icebreakers we currently have are not really built to current Naval Vessel Rules. If we were to assume that a new medium icebreaker will cost approximately $500M and last for forty years then, using simple math, we should be willing to pay at least $62.5M to have this capability for five years (actually it should be worth substantially more given the discounted value of money spent in out years). If we could get 20 years out of them, it should be worth $250M Apparently there is already a proposal on the table to convert the Aiviq (1h57m30s).
Single Mission vs Multi-Mission?
The Vice Commandant seemed to indicate that the Coast Guard only operates multi-mission vessels, and while I would agree that it is true, I would add that they are multi-mission because of there crews–their authorities, their skills, and their initiative.
In fact many of our vessels are single mission by design. In addition to buoy tenders and construction tenders I would include our existing icebreakers. That they incidentally do other missions as well, would also apply to any civilian owned vessel we might bring into Coast Guard service.
Does it take a military vessel?
There was a substantial discussion (1h59m30s) about whether we need a “military vessel” to do this job. I would start by saying any Coast Guard manned vessel is automatically a military vessel, by virtue of its crew. We have lots of vessels that don’t look very military, and are not built to military standards, but that does not mean they are not military.
If you have read much of my stuff, you would know that I would welcome ships with more military character, but I also recognize that the ships we have have doing icebreaking now are not particularly “military” by design. Shortly after the Polar Star was commissioned, she came down to Fleet Training Group San Diego, where I was the CG liaison officer, for a short training assist. Really her military characteristics were unimpressive at best. Additionally, the ability to launch a boat, so necessary for many CG missions was actually dangerous in anything other than relatively calm conditions.
Mass Casualties in the Arctic:
There was a great deal of interest in the preparations for the possibility of mass casualties if something should go wrong during the planned Northwest Passage cruise of the Crystal Serenity (1h14m).
Bringing the Polar Sea Back into Service:
As noted above, the Vice Commandant tentatively expects that in order to maintain a heavy icebreaker capability, the most likely solution appears to be a rolling life extension of the Polar Star, rather than renovation of the Polar Sea. He noted that the repair of the Polar Star cost $7M and that bringing back the Polar Sea would be a multiple of that.
Still, extending the life of Polar Star leaves with no improvement over the current situation:
- no year round capability in the Arctic
- no rescue capability in the Antarctic
- a complete loss of Heavy icebreaker capability should the Polar Star suffer a major machinery casualty
To obtain those capabilities before the new PIB is operational, we need to bring Polar Sea back into service in addition to keeping Polar Star operational. Trying to restore the Polar Sea to her original condition is probably not realistic. The equipment is just too old.
Still it might be possible to do a major renovation that would make the ship as capable and more reliable than the Polar Star.
How much should it be worth to us. Logically, we would want to have it last until the third new PIB is operational (and keep the Polar Star on line until the second PIB is complete). That means the Polar Sea would need to last until at least 2030, maybe a bit longer.
If a heavy icebreaker with a service life of 40 years is worth $1B, then getting perhaps 15 years out of a major renovation may be worth up to $375M.
According to the testimony, by now, the Congress should have in their hands a new report on the condition of the Polar Sea and what it will take to fix it. For some reason I doubt that that will include the possibility of a major renovation.
By the end of the year, the Coast Guard has promised Congress a report that will include a suggested way to proceed, including a determination of what to do with Polar Sea.
Is it any wonder the committee member’s patience is wearing thin?
It appears that we will continue to have only one heavy and one medium icebreaker until the new PIB is completed, hopefully in 2026, but even then it will not be fully operational until 2028.
Authorization for at least a two ship block buy appears likely.
Unless we change course, we are unlikely to reach a six icebreaker fleet until at least 2034.
What we might do:
If the Congress and and Administration really want to fix this, there are options, but it will take money. In addition to AC&I funds, it would also require additional operating funds and more personnel, both for the crews, and for support personnel, in addition to funding the ships themselves. We certainly should not sacrifice the Offshore Patrol Cutter program for this capability.
If the Congress and Administration want to get as close as possible to our professed need for three heavy and three medium icebreakers, we could conceivably have two heavy and three medium in six years of less.
That would require that keep Polar Star on line, that we bring back the Polar Sea, and that we obtain the two medium icebreakers currently available in the near term, the Aiviq and the still unfinished vessel that was being built by Edison-Chouest, and make those changes necessary to bring them into Coast Guard service.
What would this allow us to do?
- Have a medium icebreaker available in the Arctic during the summer, as we do now.
- Have a heavy icebreaker and a medium icebreaker available in the Arctic during the winter, something we do not currently do.
- Have a heavy icebreaker in the Antarctic during the summer as we do now, but accompanied by a medium icebreaker.
Given the tone I heard from the Representitive, if we are not careful, and do not start showing more enthusiasm for the mission, we may find the icebreaking mission transferred, in whole or in part, to the Military Sealift Command.