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White House to call for more Coast Guard icebreakers to counter Russian competition

The United States has two fully functional polar icebreakers, compared with Russia's 40.

By Fred Lambert
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaking ice for the first time. President Barack Obama will propose Tuesday a speedier acquisition and construction of new icebreakers in order to address competition in the Arctic with Russia, which currently fields 40 such vessels. Photo by U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaking ice for the first time. President Barack Obama will propose Tuesday a speedier acquisition and construction of new icebreakers in order to address competition in the Arctic with Russia, which currently fields 40 such vessels. Photo by U.S. Coast Guard

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Sept. 1 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama will announce Tuesday plans to expedite the construction of Coast Guard polar icebreakers in order to counter competition with other countries, namely Russia, in the Arctic.

A statement from the White House noted that the United States used to field seven icebreakers during World War II but now has only two that are fully functional. Comparatively, Russia currently has 40 with 11 on the way.

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"Arctic ecosystems are among the most pristine and understudied in the world, meaning increased commercial activity comes with significant risks to the environment," the statement read. "The growth of human activity in the Arctic region will require highly engaged stewardship to maintain the open seas necessary for global commerce and scientific research, allow for search and rescue activities, and provide for regional peace and stability."

On the second day of a three-day trip to Alaska, which is focused mainly on climate change, Obama is expected to ask Congress to fund a speedier acquisition and construction of a new heavy icebreaker -- accelerating the target date from 2022 to 2020 -- as well as the production of additional vessels in the future.

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The Coast Guard's two current icebreakers are the 399-foot Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star and the 420-foot Coast Guard Cutter Healy.

A July report from the Congressional Research Service, a public policy research arm of Congress, said a new polar icebreaker could cost between $900 million to $1.1 billion.

"With commerce and traffic on the Arctic Ocean increasing, including petrochemical exploration and fisheries, the United States has vital national interest in maintaining robust polar icebreaking capability to ensure year-round Coast Guard presence in these important waters," the Coast Guard said of the program, adding that the service's "mission requirements, including marine environmental protection, dictate that the service maintain heavy icebreaking capability for the foreseeable future."

The White House said Obama will also announce Tuesday an initiative by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard to map and chart the newly open Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas in order to increase maritime transportation safety and monitor climate change.

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