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WASHINGTON (May 28, 2023) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday delivers testimony at the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense hearing on the fiscal year 2023 defense budget request. (U.S. Navy Photo by Michael B. Zingaro)
by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) As tensions rise in the Arctic with Russia and China expanding their presence, Congresswoman Betty McCollum – ranking member of the powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee – confronted Navy Chief Of Naval Operations Mike Gilday in a heated hearing on Wednesday, asking hard questions on the United States’ preparedness in this strategic region. Surprisingly, Gilday sidestepped responsibility for icebreakers, passing the buck to the United States Coast Guard (USCG). Amidst growing global competition, this evasion raises critical questions about the U.S. military’s commitment to safeguarding national security and economic interests in the Arctic.
“China has participated in 33 Arctic operations in the last two decades. They engage in all major Arctic institutions and continue to expand their icebreaker fleet, which now includes two medium icebreakers, and they are currently developing heavy icebreakers,” Betty McCollum said while questioning Gilday and Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro. She highlighted that “Russia alone has 40 icebreakers, including two nuclear-powered ones.”
Russia’s vast icebreaker fleet stands in stark contrast to United States which has only one operational heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star. The Polar Star has faced raging fire, breakdowns, failed inspections, and numerous mechanical issues in recent years due to its age and condition, as it was commissioned in 1976. Despite these issues, the U.S. Coast Guard has been able to maintain the Polar Star in service with herculean repair efforts, and its sister ship, the USCGC Polar Sea, has been inactive since 2010 due to engine failure and is currently awaiting a decision on whether to refurbish or decommission it leaving the nation without reliable icebreaking service.
McCollum further inquired about the Navy’s actions to counter Russia and China’s activities in the region and questioned why the Navy had not allocated any funds in the new budget for icebreakers. She also expressed concern about the US Navy’s presence in Arctic waters and the capabilities of America’s aging fleet of Merchant Marine ships to sail in the Arctic. By stressing these crucial factors, McCollum highlights the pressing need for a renewed focus on the United States Arctic preparedness and resources.
Del Toro said the Department of Defense has “significantly increased the amount of operations we’ve conducted in the Arctic to just this past two years” but passed the icebreaker and Merchant Marine questions to Gilday who ignored the latter and passed the buck on the former.
“Ma’am on icebreakers, there is no requirement for the Navy to have icebreakers we never have had that requirement,” said Gilday “So that requirement is with the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and hence they need to fund icebreakers.”
McCollum responded “That’s not a good answer admiral, that you don’t have a requirement because you make requests for lots of things (outside official requirements).”
Navy Icebreaker History And Responsibilities
While “Navy requirements” may not specifically mention icebreakers the US Navy has operated them in the past (e.g. USS Burton Island, USS Edistro) and the Department of Defense (DoD) has made ice operations a priority since the Arctic Strategy and Global Resilience Office was established in September, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and growing concerns surrounding their activities in the north. The new office emphasizes the strategic importance of the Arctic region, which the DoD refers to as an avenue of approach to the homeland.
Over five years later, that project is not going well. The recent announcement by Bollinger Shipyards to purchase VT Halter Marine for a shockingly low price of $15 million raises concerns about the future of the USCG’s new Heavy Icebreaker project. This fire sale price despite VT Halter having billions in military contracts, along with the challenges faced by the entire U.S. shipbuilding industry, may indicate that Halter’s contract to build the new icebreaker could be in serious trouble. Despite growing concerns over a potential war in the Pacific and record-setting contracts, the U.S. shipbuilding industry is struggling.
The news about VT Halter’s fire sale, first reported by Craig Hooper at Forbes, comes as a shock to the U.S. shipbuilding industry. The risk wrapped up in Halter Marine was too much for its Singapore-based parent company ST Engineering to absorb. The contract for the first US Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter – which would be the first heavy icebreaker – is a $745.9 million fixed price, incentive-firm arrangement. In total, the shipyard was set to get about $1.94 billion if the Coast Guard exercised all three options.
Navy Shrugs Off More Than Icebreakers
Neither Gilday or Del Torro mentioned their responsibility to oversee this program or the multitude of failures that resulted in the firesale. And this in not the first time these leaders have misled congress about working ship programs. The US Navy has received congressional criticisms for neglecting its working ships, its oilers, its sealift ships, amphibious troopships and the lack of fireboats in its fleet. In a letter to Congress last year, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro responded to an inquiry regarding the absence of fireboats in San Diego Harbor, which houses hundreds of billions of dollars in warships and naval infrastructure.
The inquiry followed a fire on the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard (BHR) in 2020, where no fireboats were available. Del Toro’s report claims that waterborne firefighting capability was provided by Navy tugboats during the BHR incident, but commercial mariners argue this statement is false, as civilian tugboats were used much later in the fire. The CNO said Navy does not intend to request or pursue dedicated fireboats at this time, despite their importance in protecting ships and harbors worldwide.
Admiral Gilday this week also revealed the U.S. Navy’s plan to prematurely decommission three amphibious warships sparked outrage among legislators. Last year, congress had enshrined in law the requirement for the Navy to maintain a fleet of at least 31 ships to support Marine Corps operations. Navy Chief, Admiral Gilday’s announcement has faced sharp criticism from General Berger, who was also present at the hearing. The decision to decommission these essential vessels has raised questions about the Navy’s commitment to supporting the Marine Corps and ensuring the nation’s security interests.
This week’s “no requirement” comment is just the latest in a pattern of shrugging off responsibility to much smaller and poorly funded organizations like the US Coast Guard and US Merchant Marine but, of all the ships the navy no longer protects or builds, icebreakers might be the most important today.
Increasing Importance Of Icebreakers
As the Arctic undergoes rapid climate change, with temperatures rising three times faster than anywhere else in the world, the area’s growing importance cannot be understated. Congresswoman McCollum’s concerns highlight the need for a stronger American presence in the area, as the U.S. must be ready to stand “toe to toe, ship to ship” with Russia and China to protect its interests and maintain a foothold in this rapidly changing region.
The Arctic Council, created in 1996, comprises the eight Arctic states of Russia, the United States, Canada, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark. The council addresses various issues affecting the polar region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its growing presence in the Arctic have raised concerns about the council’s ability to maintain peace in polar regions.
Although Admiral Gilday recognized the expansion of the Navy’s Arctic operations, he failed to address the pressing need for icebreakers. Congresswoman McCollum’s relentless questioning highlights the crucial reevaluation of the Navy’s involvement in Arctic missions. Gilday did concede to the Navy’s escalating role in the Arctic, noting plans for seven exercises this year in collaboration with the Marine Corps and allied nations. He also mentioned a $236 million allocation across the Future Years Defense Program for scientific research in partnership with countries such as Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. Nonetheless, the urgency for icebreakers in the Arctic remains a vital concern, emphasizing the necessity for the Navy to commit to safeguarding American interests in the rapidly changing region.
And it’s not just the US Military’s role that’s expanding but it’s partnerships with allies. This month Bloomberg reported that with NATO flexing polar muscles with than 20,000 troops from the UK, the US, the Netherlands, and six other nations participating in Arctic exercises, the need for a strong U.S. presence in the region is more important than ever. These 11-day drills are training forces to survive and operate in remote Arctic areas, preparing them for potential conflicts in the area. While these exercises are crucial, they would require protection and supplies from Navy ships if Russia extends its current war in Ukraine to the Arctic. This raises the question of how the U.S. Navy will provide this support without icebreakers?
Russia And China Grow Arctic Footprint
In addition to a vast icebreaker fleet, today Russia’s bases inside the Arctic Circle outnumber NATO’s by about a third, according to data compiled by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Reuters. Moscow has been investing heavily in the Arctic, including the Lider icebreaker newbuild project which, although behind schedule due to the war – is still planned to be equipped with two RITM-400 type nuclear reactors and have a total capacity of 120 MW, twice the power of the currently most powerful icebreakers. Russia plans to further expand protection of its northern trade routes and gain access to new fossil fuels and rare earth metal deposits as the ice melts due to climate change. Furthermore, Russia has unveiled a new maritime strategy, vowing to protect Arctic waters “by all means,” including with hypersonic missile systems.
China has also been working hard to assume a major role in the Arctic, both economically and geo-strategically. They have been building icebreakers and ice-capable ships and promoting Chinese development of infrastructure in the northern portions of Russia.
Given the strategic and economic significance of the Arctic region, along with the expanding presence of Russia and China, the United States must adapt its approach to Arctic operations. We must ask if the U.S. Navy is doing all it can to support the USCG in developing the new PSC icebreakers.
It is essential to reevaluate the Navy’s responsibility concerning icebreakers and adopt a more proactive stance in safeguarding the nation’s Arctic interests. With potential challenges facing the construction of the new Heavy Icebreaker, the U.S. Navy must not hesitate to adapt and assist arctic allies. As trade routes between Asia and Europe are set to transform fundamentally in the coming decades, the U.S. cannot afford to fall behind. A decisive and robust American presence is vital to protect national security, scientific research, and commercial interests in this increasingly strategic region.
Congresswoman McCollum’s questioning emphasizes the Navy’s unwillingness to build the icebreakers the US Military needs or even help its small sister sea services, the US Marine Corps, US Coast Guard and US Merchant Marine, build their Arctic footprint. The challenges faced by the U.S. shipbuilding industry and the potential difficulties surrounding the construction of the new Heavy Icebreaker underscore the importance of a comprehensive approach to the Arctic, which must include the U.S. Navy taking on a more significant role in icebreaker operations.
Considering the US Navy has significantly more political influence, a vastly larger budget, and over 86,000 shipbuilding professionals in its NAVSEA department alone (making NAVSEA roughly twice the size of the entire US Coast Guard) it’s unfair to pawn this critical need off on smaller services.
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