To cap off a year in which the Coast Guard set drug interdiction records and saved 12,000 Americans from hurricanes, the service's top officer announced Thursday that it is on the verge of taking a first major step toward building a new heavy icebreaker.
In his fourth and final "State of the Coast Guard" address at the National Press Club, Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said the service now has the backing of Congress and the White House to invest in what will be the first new heavy icebreaker for the Coast Guard in more than 40 years.
"I am pleased to announce that very soon, I mean real soon -- I'm talking tomorrow -- we will release a request for proposal ... to acquire the first heavy icebreaker, the first installment that will recapitalize our nation's fleet of icebreakers," Zukunft said, to applause. "Yes, the Coast Guard is back."
Coast Guard leaders for years have been pleading for funds to rebuild the service's dwindling fleet of icebreaking ships capable of navigating through frozen Arctic channels. The last heavy icebreaker remaining in inventory is the Polar Star, commissioned in 1976 and much the worse for its decades of wear.
During the ship's most recent season in the Antarctic, which just concluded, the crew had to contend with a shaft seal failure that flooded the ship's engine room at the rate of 20 gallons per minute; and a breakdown of one of its three main gas turbines.
The Coast Guard's Fiscal 2019 budget request, released last month as part of the Department of Homeland Security request, included $750 million to begin funding this new heavy icebreaker, with a planned delivery date of 2023.
The budget request, which represents a $979 million, 8.4 percent increase from last year, is all the more significant because it follows a year in which the service had faced a $1.3 billion budget cut. Zukunft said in December that an outpouring of support from Congress ultimately rescued the service.
The commandant has said the service needs six new icebreakers in all, three heavy and three medium. Russia, a chief competitor for control in the arctic, has a fleet of 40 icebreakers, with another 11 under construction. Aside from the Polar Star, the Coast Guard has only the medium icebreaker Healy, which primarily conducts research missions.
In his address Thursday, Zukunft called the Arctic the "fourth coast" of the United States and emphasized the importance of being able to maintain dominance in the region.
"We are trusted in the Arctic to preserve our sovereignty, to preserve our precious oil and minerals, to preserve access to opening shipping routes and, let's not forget, to keep our border secure in a region with an emerging U.S. coastline and a mounting Russian footprint," he said. "In fact, the Coast Guard provides and is the single point of failure for assured surface access and the preservation of our national interests in both the Arctic and Antarctica."