Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen on Friday said the United States faces a "looming crisis" when it comes to operating in the Arctic Circle, adding that a discussion within the government on how to proceed "cannot happen soon enough."
The U.S. government should rapidly determine its policy toward the Arctic Circle, which will guide decisions on what the Coast Guard should do about aging polar icebreakers, Allen said during a National Press Club speech on the state of his agency.
It was Allen's last major address, as he is scheduled to retire in May.
Allen said a decision needs to be made on the Coast Guard's three icebreakers, two of which are over 30 years old. He said buying new ones will cost about $1 billion each.
But the Coast Guard is not seeking any funding for icebreakers in its fiscal 2011 budget request to Congress because the nation's policy toward the Arctic has not yet been determined, Allen told reporters after his speech.
"What we have to have is a discussion about what to do because the service life of these vessels is less than eight years. It takes almost that long to build a new ship," he said. "So we're at a tipping point as far as making a decision. That's got to be preceded by a policy discussion which can't happen fast enough."
Some lawmakers have stressed the need to recapitalize or buy new ice breakers, especially Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, whose state's Bath Iron Works shipyard would likely get the work.
Allen said the country faces "an ice-diminished Arctic," rather than an ice-free Arctic, meaning ice-faring ships are still needed.
"If you have an event up there, you need to be able to respond, create command and control, very much like putting a cutter off Port-au-Prince [Haiti] to give you situational awareness and tell everybody what's going on," he said. "There is no infrastructure off the north slope of Alaska from which we can conduct operations."
He said there are two airstrips but "as far as moving large numbers of people and equipment up there it's very difficult to do."
"The way you do that is with an icebreaker that gives you access, presence, command and control and the ability to coordinate operations across that entire mission set," he added. "That is what we need to be talking about in my point of view."
On other fronts, Allen defended the Obama administration's fiscal 2011 budget request even though it proposes to reduce Coast Guard personnel by nearly 800 positions. He said the budget gives the agency flexibility to recapitalize aging ships, and the Coast Guard will constantly evaluate its options for effectively handling missions.
But he said as a result of the response to the earthquake in Haiti, the Coast Guard moved one of its cutters from off the shore of Panama and Ecuador to Port-au-Prince. That left a gap in a region where 10 metric tons of cocaine are smuggled per month, he said.
Efforts are now being made to plug that gap, he said.