Papp: The Coast Guard can't lease all its icebreakers
Leasing icebreakers from the private sector for surge capability could be useful, but the Coast Guard should have one or two icebreakers of its own, Commandant Adm. Robert Papp said Aug. 6.
The Coast Guard tends to build and operate ships for more than 30 years. A lease over that time period would cost much more than owning the ships from the start, Papp said at a field hearing the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security held in Kodiak, Alaska.
Papp said the Coast Guard has done a "rudimentary" business case analysis of leased icebreakers. An icebreaker needed for only a few years could make financial sense because maintenance costs wouldn't be as much of a concern, he said.
The legal implications of leasing are unclear, though. A leased icebreaker might not be usable for law enforcement or defense operations where a sovereign military vessel is needed, Papp said.
The current fleet of icebreakers is in "woeful condition," Papp said.
USCGC Healy is 12 years old and in good shape. But Papp noted that the other two icebreakers, USCGC Polar Star and USCGC Polar Sea, are in "dreadful condition" and well past their service.
Polar Star is undergoing refurbishment and should resume operations in 2013. Papp said he he expects Polar Star and Healy to last another decade until the Coast Guard can build a new icebreaker, which he estimated will cost between $800 million and $1 billion.
The Coast Guard is preparing for new responsibilities in the Arctic. In July, it launched an unprecedented 4-month service deployment to the Arctic, an effort it calls Arctic Shield 2012.
Global warming has caused once-impassable portions of the Arctic Ocean to be open to increased shipping traffic.
Papp compared the situation to that of a city that acquires new land but doesn't increase its police and fire departments. The Coast Guard now has responsibilities in places where no human activity previously took place, he said.
To prepare, the Coast Guard has been experimenting with its equipment in the Arctic. Papp added that it has also reached out to people who live in Arctic villages, to tap into their knowledge of the environment and culture.
- watch an archived webcast of the hearing on Ustream