KRASIN is reportedly unavailable in 2007 and beyond. The prospect of chartering reliable icebreakers on a short-term basis is poor, due to obsolescence of some of the Soviet-era Russian fleet, their use to take tourists to the North Pole, and increasing worldwide demand for ice-capable vessels to support Arctic oil and gas exploration and development. In this environment, annual foreign charters cannot reasonably be expected to provide assured access or environmental protection and do not provide the U.S. presence. The committee is unaware of any Polar class vessel that is owned by a private U.S. organization.
The ice-strengthened ship PALMER possesses some capability to meet U.S. Antarctic needs other than the McMurdo break-in. However, as in the Arctic, the demand for research platform time is increasing and PALMER is already fully committed to a science program. The committee concludes this analysis by observing that all current fleet and charter options are short term in nature; there is no long-term capability in the current U.S. fleet to address Antarctic needs.
The committee concludes that the most serious gaps— that is, the most serious needs that are unmet in the short and long terms—are the following:
Ability to reliably perform the McMurdo break-in (reliable control);
U.S. Coast Guard missions in the Arctic; and
Assured access to ice-covered seas independent of ice conditions.
While all needs are important, some are more so when national security and/or geopolitical concerns are considered. In the Antarctic, given our long-standing and important commitment to the area, the McMurdo break-in is the essential gap to be addressed. HEALY cannot perform the McMurdo break-in because this ship cannot operate independently in ice conditions that have been encountered in McMurdo Sound for the past several years. In addition, diverting the HEALY to perform the McMurdo break-in significantly impacts Arctic science missions. The United States must have the reliably controlled ships to deal with the most difficult ice conditions; in some years, this requires two ships.
In the Arctic, the need to accomplish traditional U.S. Coast Guard missions (and thereby project U.S. sovereignty and presence) constitutes a critical, unfilled gap. The U.S. Coast Guard has abandoned using polar icebreakers for regular patrols along the Alaskan coastline. Although a budget for icebreaker crews, training, and other support for ship operations exists, there is no funding to deploy the icebreakers for patrol missions. The U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreakers remain at the pier unless other agencies “purchase” operational icebreaker days. The committee believes that these patrols are important to our domestic and national interests and should be resumed.
The third gap is the unmet need for assured access to ice-covered seas independent of ice conditions in both polar regions. The HEALY is not as powerful as a Polar class ship and cannot ensure timely access to some Arctic areas during the shoulder seasons and to the deep Arctic. One ship is insufficient to fulfill the full range of missions across the two polar regions.
These gaps are complementary in the sense that the one or more ships addressing a particular need may simultaneously be serving another (a ship deployed to perform a science mission may be near enough to divert to provide timely response to an oil spill). Each ship can act as a backup for the others in some situations at some times. In addition, all U.S. government-owned ships assert U.S. presence wherever they are.