US Senate could authorize up to 6 icebreakers — when there’s money for them

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WASHINGTON — The United States is one step closer to acquiring polar icebreakers that Alaska’s congressional delegation has long argued are desperately needed.

The Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday passed the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2018, a bill that sets policy objectives and determines how the U.S. military can spend much of its later-allocated funding. The bill included a provision authorizing the procurement of up to six polar-class icebreakers.

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star transits near the beginning of the ice edge in the Chukchi Sea north of Wainwright, Alaska, Tuesday, July 16, 2013. The heavy icebreaker's crew are undergoing ice trails following the conclusion of a major overhaul in 2012 to return the ship to service. (Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Mooers / U.S. Coast Guard)
The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star transits near the beginning of the ice edge in the Chukchi Sea north of Wainwright, Alaska, Tuesday, July 16, 2013. The heavy icebreaker’s crew are undergoing ice trails following the conclusion of a major overhaul in 2012 to return the ship to service. (Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Mooers / U.S. Coast Guard)

It’s not a done deal: Congress still has to appropriate the funding, and icebreakers can run about $1 billion each. But the provision is a major step forward in a yearslong effort.

The authorization came as an amendment offered by Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan. It also included a request for the Government Accountability Office to study “how best to quickly procure icebreakers at the best value for the U.S. taxpayer,” Sullivan’s office said.

Currently, the U.S. has two polar icebreakers in working order, one heavy-duty ship and one a medium-duty research vessel. Reports indicate Russia has 41 icebreakers and 11 more in development.

[Coast Guard takes steps to acquire long-sought icebreaker for Arctic]

“The United States continues to be late to the game in the Arctic, as evidenced most clearly by our meager existing fleet of Coast Guard icebreakers capable of operating in this important region,” Sullivan, a Republican, said in a statement.

“With rapidly increasing commercial activity and sea traffic in the Arctic and Russia’s alarming military build-up, America can no long afford to neglect this area of the globe,” Sullivan said. “I am hopeful that my provision and the larger NDAA will be considered by the full Senate in the near future.”