The United States has important strategic interests and enduring missions in the polar regions. In the Arctic, a portion of Alaskan citizens live north of the Arctic Circle and extensive commercial exploitation of marine and terrestrial resources occurs. The United States has commercial and political relations with the other Arctic nations; both Canada and Russia are taking action to secure and extend their Arctic interests as they contemplate increased use of the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. In the Antarctic, the United States fields a substantial scientific research presence and has both obligations and leadership roles that are defined by the 1961 Antarctic Treaty. The United States has a stated national interest in shaping international policy regarding the Antarctic continent and its surrounding waters.
Over the years, statements of national policy such as Presidential Decision Directives have reaffirmed the importance of a U.S. presence and leadership in scientific discovery and stewardship in the polar regions (PDD/NSC-26, 1996; PIRS, 1984; PRS, 1990). The most recent of these, the 1996 Presidential Decision Directive, states that “the achievement of United States interests … rests upon the year round presence in Antarctica maintained by the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), the program of scientific research and associated logistics funded and managed by the National Science Foundation.”
With respect to the Arctic, the most recent National Security Council (NSC) review of U.S. Arctic policy, undertaken in 1994, lists “national security and defense” as a principal interest in the Arctic, noting that “fundamentally, we must ensure that the Arctic Ocean is treated like other oceans for purposes of sovereignty and jurisdictional claims and that these activities are in accord with the principles of the 1982 U.N. Law of the Sea Convention” (NSC-NSDD-90, 1994).
U.S. government presence in the polar regions is necessary to support economic interests, environmental protection, support of scientific research, logistics and supply activities, search and rescue, diplomatic missions related to U.S. strategic interests, national defense readiness, homeland security readiness, maritime domain awareness, sovereignty, and maritime mobility interests, as well as resource exploration and exploitation. Such presence requires reliable access to polar sites during virtually any season of the year. The means the nation needs a strategy for a dependable capability to work in the ice-covered waters.
In the Antarctic, icebreaking and escort are an essential element of the resupply of McMurdo and South Pole Stations. In support of this mission (Operation Deep Freeze), icebreakers perform three activities: They break a channel in the Ross Ice Shelf to McMurdo Station (sometimes as long as 80 miles, Box 1.1); they groom the channel to keep it sufficiently wide for fuel and resupply vessels to enter and exit; and they escort the tanker and the cargo ships that, although ice strengthened, could easily be beset in the ice typically encountered.
In the Arctic, icebreaking capability is required to reach regions north of the Bering Strait at certain times, to access the North Slope of Alaska by sea under most conditions, and to venture into the central Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole. Environmental changes occurring in the polar regions, particularly in the Arctic, are unprecedented in modern observations. Satellite images show that the Arctic sea-ice cover has declined substantially in thickness and extent over the past three decades, (Comiso, 2002; Rothrock et al., 2003; ACIA, 2005). The rate of decline for the 2002-2005 time period is approximately 8 percent per decade. During the last four years (2001-2005), Arctic summer sea-ice extent was approximately 20 percent less than the average from 1978 through 2000. This decline in sea ice amounts to approximately 1.3 million square kilometers (500,000 square miles), an area equivalent to roughly twice the size of Texas (ACIA, 2005). During September 2005, the extent of the Arctic summer sea-ice cover reached a record minimum. Concurrent ecosystem changes are apparent and are also giving rise to increased scientific study of the polar regions.
The Annual McMurdo Break-In
For the past two Antarctic summer seasons (2004-2005 and 2005-2006), unusually heavy ice conditions necessitated use of two heavy icebreakers for the McMurdo break-in. During both operations, the POLAR SEA was in dry dock and was not mission capable. NSF was forced to contract for the services of the Russian icebreaker KRASIN, operated by the Far East Shipping Company (FESCO). During Operation Deep Freeze 2004-2005, the POLAR STAR was assisted by the KRASIN; during the 2005-2006 break-in, the KRASIN was hired to break the channel to McMurdo Station and the POLAR STAR was on “standby” in port in Seattle to assist the KRASIN if needed. During the 2005-2006 mission, the KRASIN lost a propeller blade, and the POLAR STAR was sent to help with the resupply. The POLAR STAR arrived in McMurdo Sound after a rapid, 23-day transit; however, NSF decided it was not necessary to utilize the POLAR STAR to assist in the resupply because the KRASIN was able to escort the tanker and cargo ship to the pier. At the conclusion of the break-in, the POLAR STAR returned to Seattle and was put in “caretaker” status with the crew reduced from approximately 135 to 34.
The POLAR STAR will remain in this state indefinitely until a budget decision can be made to either repair it or possibly decommission it. Meanwhile, POLAR SEA has received the minimum repairs required to make it mission capable to support Operation Deep Freeze 2006-2007. Hiring the KRASIN to assist with the McMurdo break-in is not an option in the near future because this ship has been chartered for the next several years by private companies to work in the Arctic. Although NSF is currently investigating options to provide a secondary icebreaker to assist the POLAR SEA for Operation Deep Freeze 2006-2007, in the near future the U.S. polar icebreaker fleet will consist of only two ships in active duty, the HEALY and the POLAR SEA. Due to the aging core systems, a regular and fully funded repair and maintenance schedule would keep the Polar class ships mission capable for only several more years, although this may provide a bridge to a long-term solution.
The decrease in summer Arctic sea-ice extent implies heretofore unanticipated increases in commerce, military operations, and transit in the Arctic via the Northwest Passage (north of Canada) and the Northern Sea Route (north of Russia). These activities can be expected to increase demand for access and support operations required by treaties, laws, and U.S. policies. For example, Articles 211 and 234 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) clearly state the national rules to prevent pollution from vessels and outline special rules for vessels operating in ice-covered water, respectively. These rules will have to be enforced in the Arctic. Further, it is reasonable to expect that the support of U.S. interests in the polar regions under these changing environmental conditions, especially with potential increases in strategic and commercial endeavors in the Arctic, will affect future demands for icebreaker services (see “The U.S. Arctic Presence” in Chapter 2, and “Arctic Environmental Change and Potential Challenges” in Chapter 3 for a discussion of the evidence for and indicators of these potential trends.).
Since 1965, the U.S. Coast Guard has been the sole federal agency responsible for providing national polar icebreaking capabilities. Its missions include law enforcement, marine pollution response, search and rescue, providing a U.S. presence, defense operations, and other unique missions, including diplomatic treaty activities, support for the Department of Defense, and scientific research. Although U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers do not perform all of these missions with great frequency in the polar regions, whenever and wherever a U.S. Coast Guard ship is operating, it is available to perform one or more of these other missions as the situation requires.
Budget base transfers in the 1970s and 1980s placed annual funding resources in the budgets of agencies with programs benefiting from icebreaker support in that era, including the Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, and Maritime Administration. Memoranda of Agreement (MOAs) implemented these budget transfers to the U.S. Coast Guard by providing for incremental reimbursement of deployment-related expenses (primarily fuel and other consumables) back to the U.S. Coast Guard. Although the U.S. Coast Guard retained a budget base for icebreaker crews, maintenance, training, and other support to ensure that ships were ready for operations, it did not have budget authority to specifically deploy icebreakers in support of U.S. Coast Guard mission responsibilities. Changes in programs and levels of user agency funding resulted in the decommissioning of older icebreakers in the late 1980s, and some changes were made in the reimbursement formula, but the general concept of agencies “buying” operational icebreaker days continued until 2005.
In preparing the President’s budget for fiscal year
2006, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transferred budget authority for the polar icebreakers from the U.S. Coast Guard to the National Science Foundation (NSF), while the U.S. Coast Guard was to retain custody of the polar icebreakers and continue to operate and maintain this fleet. Congress enacted this one-time transfer of $48 million from the U.S. Coast Guard to NSF, which was intended to offset all direct costs associated with the polar icebreaking program, including personnel, training, operation, and maintenance. These funds constitute the U.S. Coast Guard’s entire noncapital budget for polar icebreakers. This amount, however, was essentially less than two-thirds of the $65 million to $75 million (Science, 2005) that the U.S. Coast Guard estimated it would cost to maintain the ships. Congress finalized the transfer of funds in Conference Report H.R. 109-272 between the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees that are responsible for NSF.
According to briefings received from OMB budget examiners (October 7, 2005), this action was based on the fact that the vast majority of icebreaker ship time has been employed for scientific research. The availability and readiness of the polar icebreakers to address other national needs such as law enforcement, marine pollution response, search and rescue, providing a U.S. presence, and defense operations was not cited as a factor in the decision to transfer the ships to NSF.
With this transfer, NSF assumed control of the polar icebreaker program, and an MOA between the U.S. Coast Guard and NSF regarding polar icebreaker support and reimbursement was established in August 2005. The purpose of this MOA is to “implement the [then proposed] budget base transfer for use of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers for scientific and operational support for all planned U.S. Coast Guard operations for FY 2006 and beyond.”
Under the 2005 MOA, NSF agrees to consider all national priorities and maintenance requirements when allocating the limited budget. In addition, NSF will identify icebreaker mission needs for the succeeding fiscal year to the U.S. Coast Guard. The responsibilities of the U.S. Coast Guard under this agreement are scheduled on an annual basis by NSF. The U.S. Coast Guard has agreed to provide support staff and services necessary to operate and maintain the polar icebreaker fleet and to inform NSF of secondary polar icebreaker missions as they occur. These missions include the traditional U.S. Coast Guard missions of the polar icebreakers (search and rescue, enforcement of laws and treaties) that were conducted as needed and funded from the base funding. Under this agreement, the U.S. Coast Guard will continue to perform these missions (as needed), and NSF will continue to fund these missions from the program base that was transferred to NSF in FY 2006. In addition, if a situation arises that requires long-term polar icebreaker involvement (major marine pollution or humanitarian relief efforts), then funding and scheduling impacts will be coordinated between the U.S. Coast Guard and NSF.
THE U.S. ICEBREAKER FLEET
Today, the U.S. polar icebreaker fleet ostensibly consists of three ships. The HEALY is the most technologically advanced polar icebreaker, designed to meet the needs of polar research as well as conduct U.S. Coast Guard missions. Although the HEALY was sent to McMurdo Sound in early 2003 to assist the POLAR SEA with break-in operations, HEALY’s lower maximum power and lack of maneuverability during ship escort operations limit her utililty for Antarctic logistics. Moreover, using HEALY in Antarctica draws it away from its Arctic missions.
The most powerful icebreakers in the fleet are the two Polar class icebreakers—the POLAR STAR and the POLAR SEA. When these ships were built in the 1970s, they were of state-of-the-art design, power, strength, and weight and incorporated many innovative features. The Polar class icebreakers were designed with 30-year service lives, to support the McMurdo break-in and a variety of science and logistics missions in the Arctic. They were built with basic science facilities, which were substantially upgraded in the late 1980s, and although neither ship has been equipped as a full-service research vessel, POLAR STAR and POLAR SEA supported a broad spectrum of polar research until HEALY became operational. The 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. Necessary maintenance has been deferred on both polar icebreakers due to the lack of funding for the polar icebreaker program. From 2000 to 2004, the total gap in funding for the maintenance of the icebreaker fleet was roughly $16 million. The U.S. Coast Guard used funds from the general cutter maintenance during and prior to FY 2003 to cover the maintenance expenses. In FY 2004 additional funding to cover the maintenance of the fleet was provided from the U.S. Coast Guard overall maintenance account (funds not designated just for cutters). In FY 2005, additional funding was provided by NSF and from the U.S. Coast Guard overall operating expense account, and in FY 2006, all additional funding was provided by NSF. Both ships are becoming inefficient to operate because they now require substantial and increasing maintenance efforts to keep vital ship systems operational, and their technological systems are becoming increasingly obsolete. This situation has created major mission readiness issues.
PURPOSE OF THIS REPORT
The immediate problem for the U.S. polar icebreakers is that given the current mode of operation, their activity is underfunded. Moving budget authority for the icebreaking program to NSF did not address the base funding problem and substantially increased the difficulty of program management. Currently, the polar icebreakers are multipurpose ships, supporting multiple government responsibilities and
associated agencies. Although the vast majority of their deployment time in recent years has been in support of science for several agencies, these ships still support other necessary U.S. Coast Guard missions (e.g., national and homeland security, maritime safety, search and rescue), traditional missions that can be expected to increase as human presence in the Arctic increases due to environmental changes and emerging economic opportunities. Having now been given budget authority over the icebreaking program, NSF is today fiscally responsible for missions well 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 ships 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 its control. This situation is further complicated by the fact that the government agencies whose missions these ships support are overseen by multiple congressional committees. This arrangement of decentralized stakeholders and distributed oversight complicates authorization and appropriations for the maintenance, operation, and recapitalization of the ships that are expected to deliver the nation’s required icebreaking capabilities. In essence, management responsibility is not clearly aligned with management accountability.
Although there are many stakeholders and potential users directly and/or indirectly reliant on icebreaking capabilities in the Arctic and Antarctic, the path or mechanism to rebuild the capabilities necessary to serve U.S. interests is unclear. Thus, we face a challenge today: the aging condition of the U.S. Coast Guard’s POLAR SEA and POLAR STAR means that significant U.S. government investment would be needed to continue their service and/or replace them.
In late 2004, Congress passed P.L. 108-334, instructing the U.S. Coast Guard to ask the National Academies for advice on this issue. In response, the National Academies created the committee on the Assessment of U.S. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Roles and Future Needs. The principal task of the committee is 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 (see Appendix A, Statement of Task). The committee’s goal is to look at past, current, and anticipated future needs for U.S. icebreaking capabilities; explore different scenarios of operation, from continuation of current operations to innovative alternative approaches; and also consider how the nation’s need for icebreaking capabilities will change in the Arctic in the context of ongoing and future environmental change.
The committee’s preliminary report was released in December 2005. In that report (see Executive Summary in Appendix B), the committee described present and expected future uses of polar icebreakers 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 support and conduct of science, as part of an overall demand for icebreaking services. That report also addressed 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 addressed what it believed were the most time-dependent issues for decisions makers, focusing in particular on the urgent, short-term need for reliable icebreaking support.
This second report is the committee’s final, in-depth analysis with recommendations for future actions to address the challenge presented by U.S. strategic interests in the polar regions and these aging ships. Specifically, the committee describes the expected future needs for polar icebreakers in terms of the current and future missions of the U.S. polar icebreaker fleet, the approximate number and types of polar icebreakers needed in the future, where and when these ships will be expected to operate, and what capabilities will be needed to accomplish all missions in the polar regions.
This report presents and analyzes a small number of feasible scenarios for continuing polar icebreaker operations in the polar regions, including service life extension of existing U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers, replacement of existing U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers, and alternate methods of meeting identified needs (e.g., resupply of McMurdo Station, availability of platforms for marine research), including use of ice-strengthened vessels, foreign vessels, and other options that do not use U.S. Coast Guard services, and provides an analysis of these options. In addition the current authorities and policies that govern U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreaking operations are reviewed in terms of potential missions and new operating regimes that may arise.
The committee appreciates the presentations and supplementary materials provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, NSF, Arctic Research Commission, Department of State, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Management and Budget, 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. Committee members have expertise in icebreaker command and operations, ship design and operations, national defense, naval architecture, marine transport-shipping industry, polar ship technologies, science management, oceanography, glaciology, sea-ice dynamics, paleoclimatology, and Antarctic policy.
Together, the committee’s two reports are intended to inform the decision-making process. The committee provides information needed by Congress, OMB, the U.S. Coast Guard, NSF, and other relevant agencies (e.g., the U.S. Department of State, Department of Defense, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), all of whom have responsibilities related to the U.S. presence in polar regions. The United States has important foreign policy as well as research interests in both polar regions and that asserting those inter-
ests requires a reliable icebreaking capability under the control of the U.S. government. Today, the U.S. icebreaking capability resides with the U.S. Coast Guard and is based on the three icebreaking ships, the two most capable of which are at the end of their service lives. This report provides a comprehensive assessment of the current and future roles of U.S. polar icebreakers in supporting U.S. strategic missions and interests in the polar regions.