WASHINGTON — During wars of the past, the congressional and public debate often focused on “guns or butter” to underscore tough budget choices when there are finite resources.
Today, a similar debate has ensued between “the wall or the Arctic.”
This time the choice Congress faces is funding the wall on the U.S-Mexico border sought by President Donald Trump or funding a new icebreaker and related needs by the Coast Guard to keep pace with Chinese and Russian adventurism in the Arctic.
“Presence equals influence. If we don’t have a presence there, our competitors will,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said during a daylong forum on the Arctic at the Wilson Center in Washington.
Congress is to debate the funding conundrum this month, in its lame duck session. It must weigh, juggle or manage whether to spend $750 million for one new icebreaker or shift the money to the wall construction.
At the forefront of Schultz’s concern — the lack of a physical presence by the United States in the Arctic, a region rich in natural resources and more and more accessible because of melting ice caps.
Schultz noted how Russia has 46 ice cutters — seven nuclear-powered — and 12 more under construction. China has two modern cutters and a third near ready, despite not being a polar nation.
The U.S. has two ancient ones that spend more time in repair than on the seas, where they do double duty in the Arctic and Antarctica. Only one, the Polar Star, can break the thickest ice.
“It’s hard not to see (Russian and Chinese) activities in the Arctic as anything but an overt claim to power, pure and simple,” Schultz said Tuesday.
Money for new icebreakers and related needs for the Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, was in early budget projects for fiscal year 2019, at about $750 million. The Senate approved the money but the house zeroed it out and added the fund to get $5 billion for the border wall.
The Coast Guard needs center around a package called the Polar Security Cutter Program. That is a program to receive three new heavy polar icebreakers in the near future, then augment them with three new medium polar icebreakers, Schultz said.
The Coast Guard wants to begin construction now of the first heavy icebreaker and have it seaborne by 2023.
“We often count on the fact that the United States can stand on its own,” Michael Sfraga, director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center, told Inside Climate News. “Here is one area where we simply can’t.”