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My Turn: US icebreaking program - where have all the big thinkers gone?

Posted: August 30, 2011 - 8:27pm

In an Aug. 25 letter, Dr. Karl Erb of the National Science Foundation was pleased to find a workaround for continued icebreaking services critical for U.S. science in the Antarctic.

Actually, what Erb negotiated was a contract with the Russian Murmansk Shipping Co. to outsource U.S. polar operations. This exemplifies the narrow polar vision held by NSF, preferring foreign interests for our country’s science needs in polar regions. Since 2005, NSF outsourced U.S. Antarctic missions to the Russian icebreaker Krasin, the Swedish icebreaker Oden and now, the Russian icebreaker Vladimir Ignatyuk.

Through its role managing the U.S. icebreaking fleet, NSF gradually emasculated the program to where the Coast Guard cutter Polar Sea will be decommissioned Sept. 29. Plans to renovate sister ship Polar Star exist, but few believe Polar Star will sail again after being laid up since 2006. Polar Sea and Polar Star were once the most powerful non-nuclear icebreakers in the world; the third icebreaker in the U.S. inventory is the Healy, a capable polar science and research platform, but not designed for heavy icebreaking in support of our nation’s interests in polar regions.

The Coast Guard has been impotent in challenging NSF policies, resulting in atrophy of Polar Sea and Polar Star. NSF cultural disdain towards U.S. military in favor of international scientific cooperation seems in direct conflict with protecting U.S. economic interests in polar regions. One may conclude NSF sold out its U.S. polar operational advantage under the moniker of providing science at the most economical cost to taxpayers. NSF fails to understand U.S. icebreakers provide more than just a platform to conduct science; they are symbolic of a country with a vision and project U.S. ideals and foreign policy to every corner of the globe. For example, global compliance with the 1959 Antarctic Treaty was successful in no small part due to annual deployment of U.S. vessels conducting missions in polar regions. Our Arctic nation once boasted a fleet of seven polar icebreakers, by the end of September it will be down to one.

NSF displays consistent lack of leadership concerning our nation’s polar interests. An example is its decision not to engage Polar Sea in meaningful operational capacity during International Polar Year of 2007-2009 in favor of outsourcing to foreign interests. Instead of embracing the Presidential Directive on the Arctic Region and seizing an opportunity to showcase American commitment to a changing Arctic, NSF elected to outsource operations, including the Chinese research icebreaker Xue Long that operated within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone off Alaskan shores. These NSF polices eroded U.S. icebreaking expertise to where our know-how to operate safely in polar regions has become an “endangered species”, deteriorating our nation’s polar readiness.

The U.S. is an Arctic nation, a fact not lost to Alaskan elected officials. Even if the fine people of Iowa don’t care if the U.S. has a robust Arctic program with associated icebreakers, they care about one-third of the world’s undiscovered energy reserves, saving American lives and environmental protection. The Arctic is changing; maritime traffic doubles every six years; Russian tankers carrying 70,000 metric tons of gas condensate transit within 5 nautical miles of Alaskan coastlines; cruise ships and energy development rapidly increase Arctic maritime activity. And the U.S. has virtually no organic capability to protect our nation’s interests.

Our country lacks big thinkers championing our interests in polar regions. Big thinkers like President Thomas Jefferson who defied critics by dispatching Lewis and Clark into the “wastelands,” big thinkers like President John F. Kennedy who met emerging Soviet threats by leading this nation into space exploration.

The Arctic is an emerging region meriting national attention. We should question why Russians have scores of icebreakers, why non-Arctic nations like China, Korea and Brazil invest in icebreakers. Meanwhile, our Arctic nation reduces its inventory. Those who argue against investment in the Arctic, or promote outsourcing to foreigners, would probably have been against constructing the trans-American railroad, or would have outsourced it to the French. Countries can afford what they prioritize; a robust fleet of U.S. icebreakers, operated by the Coast Guard, is a necessary national imperative in advancing our economic and geopolitical future.

• Uchytil calls himself “a retired, simple USCG icebreaker sailor.” He is also Juneau’s new port director.

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