Converting a privately owned icebreaker for U.S. Coast Guard use and stationing it in Juneau icebreaker — the only such vessel that would be based in Alaska — is included in 2023 National Defense Authorization Act expected to receive final congressional approval next week, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said Wednesday.
The $150 million allocation is for what the legislative language calls an “available icebreaker,” but is a near-certain completion to a years-long effort to purchase the now 10-year-old Aiviq icebreaker from Edison Chouest Offshore. The NDAA also includes a provision to acquire land adjacent to the Coast Guard’s Auke Bay facility to build infrastructure for the estimated 190 Coast Guard personnel assigned to the ship, Sullivan said during a conference call with reporters to discuss Alaska-related provisions of the $857.9 billion NDAA.
The acquisition has been controversial because Coast Guard leaders have stated the Aiviq is “not suitable for military service without substantial refit” and lawmakers at the forefront of seeking the purchase – including former U.S. Rep. Don Young – received significant campaign contributions from Edison Chouest Offshore. Sullivan, who received a lesser $27,000 contribution from the company, said the NDAA funds includes upgrading the vessel to Coast Guard standards.
“This is a huge news, I think, for our state,” he said. “It’s going to take a few more years, but this will probably be about 190 Coast Guard members, 400 dependants, several hundred million (dollars) more in infrastructure, a home port and icebreaker in the great state of Alaska.”
Sullivan, who said Wednesday’s call was scheduled because passage of the NDAA by the full senate was expected during the day, now expects a floor vote next week. He said he expects the icebreaker provision to remain and be signed into law by President Joe Biden since the administration expressed support for the acquisition.
Juneau was selected by the Coast Guard as the preferred home port after evaluating a number of Alaska sites in terms of overall capability for accommodating the ship, its personnel and their dependants, Sullivan said.
“Even if you’re not from Juneau we’re going to keep pressing this issue,” he said. “It should be a series of ports in our state that can home port an icebreaker.”
Attempts to contact Coast Guard leaders in Alaska on Wednesday were unsuccessful. But Juneau Port Director Carl Uchytil, whose 27 years Coast Guard service includes many years as a captain aboard icebreakers in the Arctic, expressed enthusiasm about Juneau as a home port and – without knowing specific details of the Aiviq – shared Sullivan’s sentiment that a vessel classified as an icebreaker is a beneficial presence until more capable ships scheduled to be built during the coming years are available.
“I would welcome the Coast Guard bringing an icebreaker and the jobs that would come with it,” Uchytil said. “It would be a real shot in the arm for the city.”
Uchytil said he believes harboring the ship downtown, where the Coast Guard also has local facilities, is more suitable in terms of overall infrastructure than Auke Bay. He said because of the icebreaker’s mission it’s unlikely its presence would conflict with cruise ships.
“In reality an icebreaker would be away from Juneau during the summer, doing patrols in the Arctic presumably,” he said.
Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon, who along with Uchytil was briefed by Sullivan about the possible purchase earlier this year, said she supports the icebreaker as beneficial to Juneau without perceiving any negatives. She said the city is also discussing the issue with the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce and other entities in terms of the practical implications of the additional personnel and their families, and is willing to discuss providing land to the Coast Guard as needed for the project.
“We always prefer for them to buy it, but if that breaks the deal” a no-cost acquisition would be considered she said.
Two Coast Guard icebreakers currently used in Alaska’s Arctic are stationed in Seattle. Sullivan and Sen. Lisa Murkowski are among congressional members seeking an addition six icebreakers for what’s seen as a growing need in the Arctic, with three approved so far (two of them replacing the existing vessels). Those vessels are likely several years from completion and deployment.
The Aiviq has a lower classification than the Coast Guard medium icebreaker Healy, which visited Juneau in early November after a four-month Arctic deployment before returning to its home port in Seattle. The privately owned vessel is classified as ABS A3, meaning it can operate independently in the Arctic offshore shelf for half of the year and in the stable pack ice of the Central Arctic on “short-term, short-distance entries during July through December.”
The current NDAA language states the icebreaker sought by Sullivan is sufficient to supplement existing vessels in a year-round Arctic presence.
“Any available icebreaker acquired or procured…shall augment the Coast Guard mission in the Arctic, including by conducting operations and missions that are in addition to missions conducted by the Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the region,” the bill states.
Among the provisions are ensuring the icebreaker is capable of collecting climate data, which the military has called vital due to climate change posing a broad range of priority challenges in the Arctic and other regions. Sullivan, after repeatedly emphasizing Wednesday the need for boosting the U.S. military presence in the Arctic due to growing Russian and Chinese activity there, also touted as an accomplishment in the NDAA language “redirecting the military in the purpose of its job.”
“We shouldn’t be hunting for so-called extremists in the military,” he said, adding “it’s not about climate change. It’s not about a social organization.”
When asked if that means the military shouldn’t focuses on matters it perceives as relevant to climate change — which includes sea level rise and other impacts being a threat to military facilities, and extreme heat/cold/storms affecting training and operations — Sullivan reaffirmed his remark both during the call and in a follow-up email to his office.
“Senator Sullivan believes the military needs to focus on their core mission of lethality and winning America’s wars, not climate change,” Ben Dietderich, Sullivan’s press secretary, wrote in an email.
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