Summary from Interim Report
At the request of Congress in PL 108-334, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) provided funds to the National Research Council of the National Academies to establish the Committee on the Assessment of U.S. Icebreaker Roles and Future Needs. The Committee’s Statement of Task (Appendix A) charges it to provide a comprehensive assessment of the current and future roles of U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreakers in supporting U.S. operations in the Antarctic and the Arctic, including scenarios for continuing those operations and alternative approaches, the changes in roles and missions of polar icebreakers in the support of all national priorities in the polar regions, and potential changes in the roles of U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers in the Arctic that may develop due to environmental change. The committee was asked to provide a brief interim report to highlight the most urgent and time-dependent issues, and this report fulfills that request. The committee will provide a final report covering the full scope of its tasks and more detailed analysis in the late summer of 2006.
In this interim report, the committee describes present and expected future uses of the polar icebreakers (POLAR STAR, POLAR SEA, and HEALY) with respect to relevant U.S. Coast Guard missions in the Antarctic and the Arctic, including national defense, homeland security, support of economic activity, law enforcement, search and rescue, environmental protection, and the support of and conduct of science, as part of an overall demand for icebreaking services. This report also addresses potential changes in the roles and missions of U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreakers in support of future marine operations in the Arctic that may develop due to environmental change. The committee addresses what it believes are the most time-dependent issues for decisions makers, focusing in particular on the urgent, short-term need for reliable icebreaking support. Longer-term issues will be covered in detail in the committee’s final report.
The committee appreciates the presentations and supplementary materials provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, National Science Foundation, Arctic Research Commission, Department of State, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others in the marine transport and science communities. The committee’s findings and recommendations are based on its analysis of the materials and briefings received, and the committee’s expert judgment. The committee members have expertise in ship design and operations, national defense, naval architecture, marine transport–shipping industry, polar ship technologies, icebreaker command and operations, science management, oceanography, glaciology, sea ice dynamics, paleoclimatology, and Antarctic policy.
Congressional staff and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) examiners spoke with the committee and they indicated a need for management decisions regarding the polar icebreakers. The committee was told that the findings and recommendations in this report could be useful for informing FY07 budget decisions. Although the Statement of Task does not request the committee to make management recommendations, it explicitly instructs the committee to provide materials for urgent decision making. Thecommittee believes that management recommendations are useful to both Congress and OMB to help in resolving the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker issue for FY07 and until a long-term solution can be found. The committee hopes that the interim findings and recommendations will inform decision making while it proceeds to carefully develop recommendations for a long-term solution. The committee identifies four overarching issues for which findings and recommendations are made. These issues are icebreaking needs for the Antarctic and for the Arctic, the current status of the U.S. Polar Class (heavy) icebreakers, and managing the nation’s icebreaking assets.
ICEBREAKING NEEDS IN THE ANTARCTIC
The need for icebreaking in the Antarctic is primarily a result of a succession of national policy statements and Presi-
dential Decision Directives, which assert that the United States has strategic interests in the Antarctic related to foreign policy and security, environmental protection and scientific research. The United States asserts strategic interests in Antarctica through the year-round residence of American researchers at three permanent scientific stations. The presence of the South Pole Station, in particular, helps protect the U.S. position on sovereignty in Antarctica, providing for a unique research platform at a location that assures U.S. participation in the Antarctic Treaty system.
Despite some missions of opportunity, the primary use of U.S. heavy icebreakers (POLAR STAR and POLAR SEA), at present, is to break a channel into McMurdo Station to aid the resupply that is critical to the continued functioning of both the McMurdo and South Pole Stations. By using an altered logistics strategy, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has determined that it may be possible to maintain operations at the McMurdo and South Pole Stations while occasionally skipping annual channel break-in and ship-borne portion of the McMurdo resupply to avoid a break-in under extraordinarily heavy ice conditions. Nevertheless icebreaker support of the break-in to McMurdo Station is required for the foreseeable future. Based on these findings, the committee recommends:
Recommendation #1: The United States should reliably control (by ownership or other means) at least one heavy icebreaker that is available and capable of breaking a channel into McMurdo Station.
The committee will investigate in the next several months how the icebreaker assets should be controlled to meet the nation’s icebreaking needs, and recommendations will be provided in the final report.
ICEBREAKING NEEDS IN THE ARCTIC
Because of the geographic location of Alaska, the United States is an Arctic nation with significant geopolitical, security, economic, and scientific interests in the Arctic, and U.S. interests must be protected in this region. The U.S. Coast Guard has the overarching missions of maritime safety, maritime security, national defense, and protection of natural resources in this region where icebreaking capabilities are sometimes required. Although the HEALY is primarily devoted to fulfilling the U.S. Coast Guard mission to support scientific research, this ship is also available to support the overarching U.S. Coast Guard missions in the Arctic. If this ship is tasked to the Antarctic, as it was in 2002-2003, the federal icebreaker presence in arctic waters is reduced significantly.
In the winter, the entire Alaskan northern coast and a substantial portion of the Alaskan western coast is ice-covered. In the summer months, the Arctic sea ice margin retreats northward creating open waters around the entire Alaskan coastline for several weeks to several months. Arctic sea ice extent over the next several decades in early spring and late summer (shoulder seasons) is expected to be even further reduced, creating more broken ice along the Alaskan coastline. Greater spatial and temporal variability in sea ice extent and thickness throughout the Arctic is expected, which may influence the capability needed to break ice of differing thicknesses in certain regions of the Arctic.
Economic activity appears to be increasing and moving northward as a result of dramatic ice margin retreat over recent years. These economic activities involve fishing fleets, native Alaskan hunting and fishing expeditions, cruise ships, and increased interests in more northerly natural resource exploitation. Increased activity would imply a greater human presence in these regions, where risks are increasing due to changing ice edge environments and more broken ice in open waters. In addition, possible ratification of Article 76 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea would require extensive mapping of the U.S. continental shelf off the coast of Alaska, if the United States wishes to use the treaty to extend its economic zones and counter claims by other Arctic nations.
The potential increase in human activity in northern latitudes will likely increase the demand on the U.S. Coast Guard to have a greater presence in and around the ice margin to perform its security and law enforcement missions. Assuming that the U.S. Coast Guard is to continue to support scientific research in the Arctic as well, icebreaking capability is required, including occasional heavy icebreaking. The committee recommends:
Recommendation #2: The United States should maintain dedicated, year-round icebreaker capability for the Arctic to support national security interests as well as science.
CURRENT STATUS OF THE U.S. POLAR CLASS ICEBREAKERS
Ships with icebreaking capabilities are currently required for multiple missions in the Arctic and the Antarctic and likely in the future. The two existing heavy icebreakers, POLAR STAR and POLAR SEA, have operated in both polar regions for 29 and 28 years, respectively, and are near the ends of their design service lives. Both ships are inefficient to operate because they now require substantial and increasing maintenance efforts to keep vital ship systems operating, and their technological systems are becoming increasingly obsolete. These conditions are increasing the risk of operational failure and are placing national programs and missions at risk.
Currently, only one U.S. Coast Guard heavy icebreaker, the POLAR STAR, is capable of supporting the resupply operation in Antarctica. The NSF and U.S. Coast Guard have identified funds for restoring POLAR SEA to interim operational capability by the fall of 2006. However, this is not a
long-term solution because the age, condition, and expense of maintaining a Polar Class, heavy icebreaker on a yearly basis puts the annual Antarctic resupply at significant risk of failure. Providing an icebreaker capable of handling the rigorous ice conditions in McMurdo Sound is a critical problem in the short term, which the committee has defined as the next 4 to 8 years. This is an optimistic estimate of the time required to either build a new ship(s) or extend the service life(ves) of the current ship(s). Although the HEALY is capable of supporting the McMurdo break-in, it is primarily tasked to support Arctic science, and its removal directly impacts Arctic missions. A reliable and fully operational HEALY is essential to successful executions of many science missions in the Arctic.
Since 2005, the NSF has twice negotiated a contract with a private company, the Far East Shipping Company (FESCO), to hire the Russian icebreaker ship, KRASIN, to break a channel to McMurdo Station. Contracting ships of other nations on a year-by-year basis is not a dependable long-term solution. Only a few icebreakers are capable of supporting this mission in a timely manner, and many of these ships have been contracted for the next several years due to emerging resource exploitation in northern latitudes. A long-term contract for icebreaking operations with an operator other than the U.S. Coast Guard is a viable option to be considered, although this arrangement may have long-term implications for U.S. control of icebreaking capabilities and the availability of icebreakers to the United States in the Arctic.
A short-term plan is needed to provide a bridge to a long-term solution. This long-term solution must ensure the integrity and operation of the icebreaking assets necessary to meet U.S. needs in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Regardless of the ultimate long-term solution, full implementation will require on the order of 4 to 8 years. Based on these findings, the committee recommends:
Recommendation #3: In the short term, the required maintenance should be performed to make at least one polar class ship mission capable over the next 4 to 8 years.
MANAGING THE NATION’S ICEBREAKING ASSETS
Significant long-term maintenance of the heavy icebreakers has been deferred over the past several years. This, coupled with the lack of a plan for replacement or refurbishment of the nation’s icebreaking ships, has put meeting national needs in the north and south (as outlined above) at risk.
Recently, OMB assigned budget authority for the U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreaking program to the NSF, and Congress sustained this action. Now the NSF has fiscal control over all direct costs associated with polar icebreaking program, including personnel, training, operation and maintenance costs. Under a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) negotiated between the USCG and the NSF, the USCG must submit a yearly plan for the NSF approval. Although the MOA identifies funds for traditional U.S. Coast Guard missions (e.g., search and rescue, law and treaty enforcement), the cost of training for these USCG missions must be included in the plan and is therefore subject to approval by the NSF.
The immediate problem is that given the current mode of operation, activity is underfunded. Moving budget authority for the icebreaking program to the NSF does not address the base funding problem and increases the difficulty of management because management decisions related to the polar icebreakers are now spread across two agencies. Currently, the polar icebreakers are dual purpose ships, meeting both the NSF and the USCG mission responsibilities. The U.S. Coast Guard reports that over 90 percent of the ship deployment time is in support of science primarily utilized by the NSF, although NOAA has recently used roughly 30 percent of available time on the HEALY. These ships, however, are necessary to support other U.S. Coast Guard traditional missions (e.g., national and homeland security, maritime safety, search and rescue), and these missions will increase in the future if human presence in the Arctic increases due to climate changes and emerging economic opportunities. The U.S. Coast Guard reports that limited budgets keep these ships in port unless other agencies provide deployment funds.
Having been given budget authority over the icebreaking program, the NSF is now fiscally responsible for missions outside its core mission and expertise. Without budget authority, the U.S. Coast Guard has been put in a situation in which it has the role of operating a ship for which it does not have full management control. Issues such as how to fund or choose among crew training alternatives for nonscience missions are not fully under USCG control.
The committee believes that the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaking mission transcends the support of science despite the fact that the majority of icebreaker usage at the current time is to support science. There remains a need for USCG operations to support its other missions, and this need may increase in the future in the Arctic. The committee strongly believes that management responsibility should be aligned with management accountability and therefore recommends:
Recommendation #4: In the short term, the management of the U.S. polar icebreakers should reside with the U.S. Coast Guard, and it should have the appropriate operational and maintenance budget to fulfill U.S. Coast Guard missions that require icebreaking.
Recommendation #5: In the short term, the NSF should revert to being a user and should continue to negotiate financial agreements to pay for icebreaker services when U.S. Coast Guard ships are employed.
GOALS FOR THE COMMITTEE’S FINAL REPORT
Having identified both basic uses and needs for polar icebreakers and described how the roles and missions of these ships may change in response to changing environmental conditions in the Arctic, over the next several months the committee will investigate the mix of icebreaking capabilities and numbers of icebreaking ships that are required to meet these needs over the long term. The committee will consider this mix in light of the multiple, divergent missions of the polar icebreakers, how the operational mode of the U.S. Antarctic Program might be modified to reduce dependence on icebreaking assets and the potential for increasing icebreaker needs in the Arctic. Specifically, the committee will investigate whether multipurpose or single purpose assets are required to efficiently meet the nation’s long-term icebreaking needs and identify a range of options to efficiently manage and operate these ships over the next several decades.
Although the Statement of Task charged the committee to outline feasible scenarios for continuing icebreaking operations and identify those that seem most promising, the committee determined that it was not feasible to conduct this analysis in the three months the committee had to deliver this interim report. In the final report, the committee will investigate the options for acquiring icebreaking capabilities, including, but not limited to, a full service life extension program for one or both existing heavy icebreaking ships, construction of one or more new ship(s), and alternate methods of meeting identified needs (e.g., use of ice-strengthened vessels, hiring foreign vessels, and other options that do not use U.S. Coast Guard services). The committee will specifically investigate the future needs for polar icebreaking to support national security issues, especially in light of the potential environmental and economic changes in the Arctic. The committee will also review existing laws governing U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreaking operations and present recommended changes in these laws based upon potential missions and new operating regimes that seem most promising to meet the nation’s long-term icebreaking needs.
The committee wishes to emphasize that the issue before them is the viability and need for icebreaking capabilities to support U.S. needs in the polar regions. Although the Committee’s Statement of Task emphasizes the U.S. Coast Guard role, and this role has been crucial in the past, it is uncertain whether the future will hold the same type of nearly exclusive emphasis on the U.S. Coast Guard to meet the nation’s full polar icebreaking needs. The committee will investigate a wide range of models to determine how to best meet the nation’s needs for icebreaking and address this central issue in its final report. These findings and recommendations will be focused on providing direction for meeting the nation’s long-term icebreaking needs for the next several decades.