Congress Authorizes A Great Lakes Icebreaker The Coast Guard Doesn’t Need

As the House Armed Services Committee blew up Joe Biden’s $715 billion Pentagon budget in early September, restive authorizers quietly advanced a new, $350 million Great Lakes-focused icebreaker, a perplexing “gift” for a Coast Guard scrambling to recapitalize a decrepit and failing open-ocean icebreaker fleet.

Few outside observers noticed the addition. Big-ticket ships, including a new Arleigh Burke Class (DDG-51) destroyer, an extra America Class (LHA-6) amphibious assault ship, a John Lewis Class (T-AO-205) fleet oiler, an additional Spearhead Class (T-EPF-1) fast transport ship overshadowed the newly-authorized icebreaker.

The Coast Guard-boosting amendment was also easy to miss, tucked away in an innocuously titled, “Great Lakes Winter Shipping Act of 2021.” Advanced by up-and-coming Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher (WI-8), the legislation opens as an unremarkable request for a grab-bag of Great Lakes ice-breaking studies and proposed ice-breaking mandates. But the amendment closes by ordering up $350 million in funding for “the acquisition of a Great Lakes icebreaker at least as capable as the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw (WLBB-30),” and $20 million “for the design and selection of icebreaking cutters…that are at least as capable as the Coast Guard 140-ft-icebreaking tugs.” 

The Coast Guard is a bit ambivalent about this unexpected Congressional largesse. One congressional source ceded that “what the Great Lakes’ Congressional delegation wants, they eventually get.” Even thought the Coast Guard won’t ever reject a new ship, the Coast Guard would be far more excited if the House Armed Services Committee approved an “open-ocean” icebreaker to handle urgent national security challenges in either the North and South Poles.

The Coast Guard has been very clear about the Service’s icebreaking needs. The Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Karl Schultz, has long said the Coast Guard needs six new icebreakers, three heavy “polar security” icebreakers and three medium “arctic security” icebreakers. In fact, the Coast Guard is so desperate for serviceable “open ocean” icebreaking capability, it added a $150 million request to “lease or purchase” a “commercially available asset to supplement current National polar icebreaking capabilities” to the Service’s FY 2022 Unfunded Priorities List.  

Even though the Coast Guard is begging for new icebreakers, the Department of Homeland Security is reluctant to support a second Mackinaw-like vessel, noting as recently as 2020 that a “preliminary analysis indicates a limited operational need for such a vessel in the current Great Lakes fleet mix.” The current Mackinaw (WLBB-30), a 16-year old hybrid of icebreaker and buoy-tender, is designed exclusively for Great Lakes service, inappropriate for deep-sea icebreaking tasks.

Authorizing a second Mackinaw is an odd choice for inclusion the defense budget. The Coast Guard needs icebreakers, but Coast Guard’s current national security icebreaking priorities are focused upon helping maintain rules-based-order in the increasingly lawless deep seas, far from the orderly bulk cargo traffic of the Great Lakes. 

Congress Wants What It Wants

Despite the Coast Guard’s signaling that it would welcome a multi-purpose, open-ocean medium icebreaker, Mike Gallagher and members of the powerful Senate and House Great Lake Task Forces have different ideas. A new “purpose-built” icebreaker, dedicated exclusively for Great Lakes service, has long been an unfunded priority for the Great Lakes Congressional caucus, and, now that the Great Lakes have, over the last few years, gotten billions to fund a range of new maritime commerce-enhancing infrastructure projects, the Caucus’ focus is turning to icebreaker capability. But a new icebreaker built solely for the Great Lakes is tough to justify—the Great Lakes largely closes to shipping between January 15th to March 25. Given that the Great Lakes “ice season” runs from December through April, a heavy icebreaker is only needed for about four months out of every year. A second one is needed even less. 

But impatient bulk shippers won’t sit and wait for Great Lakes ice to melt. The fundamentals of “just-in-time” commerce—a dominant school of business thinking that rewards the efficiencies in small inventories and advocates for immediate delivery of business-critical resources—crumble when neccessary transport faces even a modest disruption. In tough winters, the pro-business Lake Carriers’ Association estimates that limited icebreaking resources in the Great Lakes inflicts over a billion dollars of damage to the U.S. economy and costs about 5,000 jobs. Island communities, shoreline communities and shippers all suffer during ice-related transport delays—even if some of those delays might be best solved by local or state-level investments in ice-breaking tugs, private ice-busting contractors, or just better planning at the local level.

Climate change isn’t helping to reduce heavy icebreaker demand. In even the most mild winters, ice can still be a problem in the upper Great Lakes. 2020 was the warmest winter since 1973, but, even then, unbroken lake ice briefly halted the first commercial vessel to transit the Sault Ste. Marie “Soo” Locks during the opening of the Great Lakes shipping season.

To eliminate ice delays, Congress wants a larger, more modern Coast Guard icebreaking fleet in the Great Lakes. But the Coast Guard already puts a lot into the Great Lakes icebreaking mission; outside of the 240-foot USCGC Mackinaw, ice clearing is supplemented by two large and modern buoy tenders and six substantially older 140-foot icebreaking tugs. Nine ice-ready ships, supplemented by better meteorology and ice tracking, offer a lot of ice-breaking capability. Even so, Congress still looks back fondly at the late seventies, when the Coast Guard had 14 icebreaking-capable ships working on the Great Lakes. 

A particular sticking point for Congress is the Coast Guard’s lack of organic “back-up” to reinforce existing ice-breaking resources. A second big Great Lakes icebreaker certainly offers better coverage for both the upper and lower Great Lakes. But a 2010 Great Lakes Icebreaking Mission Analysis determined that a second heavy icebreaker would only be needed for a few weeks during severe icebreaking seasons, and then only when heavy icing simultaneously hit both the upper and lower Great Lakes. 

A second large icebreaker certainly does increase icebreaking resiliency on the Great Lakes. As the sixteen-year-old “modern” Mackinaw (WLBB-30) ages, the prospect of a mechanical failure or an extended absence for a refit or service life extension will increase. But America has long kept only a single “heavy” icebreaker on the Great Lakes. By the late seventies, worn-out World War II-era icebreakers shared heavy icebreaking on the Great Lakes. A set of 1940s-era Wind Class medium icebreakers, balanced Great Lakes duties with work at both the North Pole and Antarctica, while one, a Wind Class variant called the Mackinaw (WGAB 83), was purpose-built for Great Lakes service in 1944. Congress fought hard to keep the Mackinaw and two Wind Class cutters operational, but by 1989, only the aged Mackinaw was left. The old icebreaker soldiered on, unsupported, for 17 years, until a replacement, a new “purpose built” Mackinaw (WLBB-30), entered service in 2006. 

The Great Lakes delegation is uneager to put up with the drama of managing an aging and unreliable Great Lakes icebreaker fleet again. Today, outside of the USCGC Makinaw, ice clearing is supplemented by two large, relatively modern buoy tenders and six substantially older 140-foot icebreaking tugs. The tugs, commissioned in 1979-80, recently completed a service life extension, and are expected to operate into the 2030’s, providing maneuverable light icebreaking support. The House’s legislation wisely guides the Coast Guard to begin design studies for an eventual replacement of the old-but-vital 140-foot icebreaking tugs, ensuring the long-term recapitalization of the rest of Coast Guard’s Great Lakes icebreaking fleet is uninterrupted.

Everyone agrees that America will require new icebreakers to meet growing domestic needs. But, today, the Great Lakes Congressional Caucus is being a bit greedy, demanding more than their fair share of America’s domestic icebreaking capabilities for themselves.

Fix The Legislation:

Having mid-sized open-ocean-ready cutters available for global assignment would dramatically improve America’s position in both the North Pole and Antarctica. In the interim, reserving one of those to help break out the Great Lakes during rough winters offers the best solution. Over the longer-term, that mid-sized icebreaker design can be modified to support a vessel purpose-built for an exclusive Great Lakes-oriented icebreaking mission—the same design pathway that helped the original Mackinaw (WGAB 83) serve an unprecedented sixty years on the Lakes. This way, the Coast Guard can work in a methodical fashion, acquiring the design rights and distributing contracts to yards that might be particularly suited to build a Great Lakes-focused icebreaker.

Having a small “pocket” open-ocean icebreaker design ironed out and ready for serial production by 2030 would be a strategic boon. But Congressman Gallagher’s amendment doesn’t offer that flexibility. It’s something of a “poison pill” bill. It ties the new icebreaker funding to a range of ambitious ice-breaking targets, and forces the Coast Guard icebreaking team to be too subordinate to Great Lakes business interests. In part, the amendment demands “that ice-covered waterways in the Great Lakes shall be open to navigation not less than 90 percent of the hours that vessels engaged in commercial service and ferries attempt to transit such ice-covered waterways.” The only way this demand can be met in the near-term is if a new big Coast Guard’s icebreaker is—regardless of real need—confined to the Great Lakes for its entire service life. 

In addition to looking at ways to share icebreaker support with the rest of the nation, Congressman Gallagher and other Congressional advocates for a new Great Lakes icebreaker also need to take another look at the proposed cost of their new heavy icebreaker. The amendment, as worded, puts $350 million towards a Mackinaw replacement. But the latest Mackinaw was procured for $82.5 million in 2001. In 2020, industry sources estimated cost for a Mackinaw recapitalization was $162 million, while the Department of Homeland Services estimated that a copy of the Mackinaw would cost $350 million. Unless Congressman Gallagher is actually looking to build a new medium icebreaker for global service, the $350 million price tag and the present disparity in cost estimates seem difficult to justify. 

For $350 million, rather than build a copy of the purpose-built Mackinaw, it may make more national security sense to procure a robust ocean-going icebreaker, able to serve beyond the Great Lakes, supporting the Coast Guard in increasingly contested Arctic and Antarctic waters. 

Put bluntly, icebreakers are expensive assets, and a purpose-built icebreaker, needed only for a few weeks of service during particularly hard winters, is a luxury. With big crews, a complex, power-dense engineering plant, and one of the most structurally stressful mission-sets a surface vessel can have, icebreakers cost a lot to build, operate and maintain—and an un-needed one will do little more than drain the Coast Guard’s already meagre operations and maintenance funding. Unless Congressman Gallagher and the rest of the Great Lakes delegation free the Coast Guard to procure a globally-deployable mid-sized icebreaker—capable of handling national security taskings—the amendment is a poor fit for the National Defense Authorization Act. Without changes, Gallagher’s poison-pill legislation would be far better to try it’s luck in a less-likely-to-pass infrastructure or commerce-oriented funding vehicle. 

While worthy, the proposal to tie icebreaking resources to the Great Lakes is really not a defense matter. Certainly, economic security is national security, but Congressman Gallagher’s proposal—as it stands now—may actually do real harm to American security. His amendment limits Coast Guard flexibility, draining the Coast Guard’s already overstretched finances. And Congressman Gallagher, a former intelligence officer, may need to do a little more thinking about how his quest to shape America’s domestic icebreaker fleet is, in turn, being shaped by China’s insatiable appetite for natural resources. A significant amount of Great Lakes cargo traffic consists of China-bound coal, iron ore, and other commodities—and that trade stands to grow as China continues an unofficial ban on Australian coal and other other commodities.

In short, America’s national defense is poorly served if a bulked-up Great Lakes icebreaker fleet, by ensuring prompt transit of American iron ore, coal and other materials through the Great Lakes, ends up helping the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy build a modern globe-spanning icebreaker fleet on time and under-budget.

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