Papp: Coast Guard can't afford new icebreaker

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Disagreement among administration officials over the priority a new U.S. icebreaker should assume within the Coast Guard acquisition budget is one reason why the service has yet to submit a five year capital investment plan.

Given the likelihood of Coast Guard acquisition spending hovering around $1 billion annually in the foreseeable future, the service cannot afford a new heavy icebreaker without making cuts to other programs, such as the Offshore Patrol Cutter acquisition, said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp.

A new icebreaker, estimated to cost around $1 billion to build, "would displace other things that I have a higher priority for," he said while testifying March 26 before a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee.

"There are other people who have the opinion with an opening Arctic and other things that perhaps an icebreaker ought to be a higher priority," he said.

Papp said he and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson are in agreement over what the plan should prioritize, but have yet to reach agreement with others in the Obama administration.

The past couple years have seen a decline in acquisition spending that until recently was around $1.5 billion annually. The White House budget proposal for the next fiscal year allocates just $1.08 billion for Coast Guard acquisition.

Papp has elsewhere said the Coast Guard really needs $2.5 billion annually to address all its outstanding needs, including recapitalization of an inland waters fleet that's around half a century old.

One option under consideration is refurbishing the laid-up heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Sea, possibly waiting to do so until the Coast Guard's other heavy icebreaker the USCGC Polar Star nears the end of its recently completed seven- to 10-year life extension. The Polar Sea, tied up "cold iron" in Puget Sound, experienced a catastrophic failure of one of its main propulsion diesel engines in April 2010.

"I want to make sure for the record that I didn't say [it's] a good option. I said it may be an option," Papp told lawmakers. A Coast Guard analysis has concluded that it can make do without a second heavy icebreaker through 2022.

Papp also dismissed leasing as a serious possibility, stating that the annual leasing cost would eat into operations money, which would require further reducing the number of Coast Guard personnel.

"We're down to the point now when we talk about displacing things, what we're talking about is displacing people," he said. The budget proposal for fiscal 2015 would decrease personnel by another 800, a number that would add up to a 2,000 position decrease since 2011, Papp said.

"One of the most important things to me when I became commandant was preserving our end strength for our service. In my opinion, I've failed miserably," said Papp, who ends his four year term as commandant this May.

Even without an icebreaker in the proposed budget – except for $6 million to study the matter – the Coast Guard must cut personnel-driven capability, such as reducing by four the number of Vessel Boarding and Search Teams.

"We're making some very tough decisions as this budget gets tamped down, squeezed down. And, as I said earlier, we have no other option now that to start cutting people in specific locations," Papp said.

For more:
- go to the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on coast guard and maritime transportation hearing webpage (prepared testimony and archived webcast available)

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