For years the U.S. Coast Guard has wanted to buy a new icebreaker, but the Reagan Administration balked at spending $300 million and just this month scrapped the proposal again. Then came the whales. Then came the Russians.
The use of two Soviet icebreakers in a bid to save two whales trapped off Point Barrow, Alaska, has prompted a renewed request by the Coast Guard to bolster the U.S. icebreaking fleet.
The Coast Guard now has only three saltwater icebreakers and one of them is scheduled for decommissioning in January. The service is resubmitting its request for money to build a new one to the White House budget office, sources said Thursday.
The Coast Guard’s commandant, Adm. Paul A. Yost Jr., declined to confirm or deny that his agency was asking the White House to reconsider.
But Yost said the trapped whales, the role of the Soviets in helping them and the world attention focused on the Herculean effort “have definitely been a positive impetus toward us getting a new icebreaker.”
Congress in 1986 ordered the construction of two new icebreakers by 1990 after a study by the Administration concluded that the Coast Guard should have a minimum of four--and better yet five--in its fleet.
With one, two or even three new icebreakers, the United States would remain well behind the Soviets, which has a fleet of 16, including four powered by nuclear reactors, according to the Coast Guard.
“The Soviet Union is an Arctic nation; they need that many,” Yost said. “We don’t need that many, we’re not an Arctic nation. But we do need at least four polar icebreakers. I think one will be all we can afford next year. Maybe we’ll get another one in the years beyond that.”