In Forbes: Mike Gallagher’s Great Lakes Push is a Breaker Too Far

by Craig Hooper on September 13, 2021

If you want to know about defense journalism and the state of the Coast Guard in relation to the rest of the Uniformed Services, just look at the latest HASC markup. Defense media got the topline messages–that the HASC had grown Biden’s defense budget by $25 billion, and that the Navy got several ships. They covered the heck of out that–it was easy to digest. But, once you dig a little into the details–which, frankly, I don’t understand why the reporters weren’t out there digging–there are all kinds of neat-and-interesting Easter eggs in the HASC markup. Like Mike Gallagher’s $350 million Great Lakes icebreaker and $20 million icebreaking tug deal, that I talk about over in Forbes (here).

Look, I like Mike Gallagher (WI-8). He’s a sharp guy and he legislates. His up-and-coming defense role, along with 2nd-termer dfsElaine Luria (VA-2), make the House Armed Services Hearings far more lively. But, that said, the “Great Lakes Winter Shipping Act of 2021” is just too much. I get that the Great Lakes Congressional delegation is powerful, and that one crosses them at one’s own peril, but when we have real national security challenges at both the North and South Poles and our ocean-going icebreaker fleet is either breaking down or catching on fire–or both–then, the last thing we should be doing is funding the recapitalization of a purpose-built icebreaker of little use anywhere beyond the Great Lakes. Mike knows this, and that makes his maneuver here a little off-putting.

I mean, heck, the Coast Guard put an open ocean icebreaker on the unfunded priorities list. Fund that!

I think Mike knows we should be building (or renting) mid-sized, open-ocean icebreakers, and that the best route is to get a design funded, get a few started building, reserving one for Great Lakes use in a pinch. Once we have a brace of open-ocean breakers, then we can get about recapitalizing or supplementing the existing Great Lakes icebreaker, the 15-year old USCGC Mackinaw (WLBB-30). But Mike’s not going for that.

I get it–there’s another thing here. Mike’s gotta accede to his local power-players–and yes, everybody does this–but the Great Lakes industries are being way too grabby. Mike, if he wants to be a true great, needs to have the guts to tell his folks “the way it is.” His constituents want luxurious levels of icebreaking–to the point where every single little puddle-jumping ferry gets icebreaking help. But that, in the current budget environment, when the Coast Guard is already stressed to the breaking point, is far too much of a subsidy. Mike needs to do some more work–go get the billions that FEMA’s port security grants people hand out, and make it bend a little towards supporting local icebreaking capabilities. Get States and Locals need to pony up if they want the icebreaking support that the “Great Lakes Winter Shipping Act of 2021” tries to mandate as a USCG performance metric. And heck, even if the Congress forces the Coast Guard to ante up, at least Mike needs to recognize that flooding and high-water levels (along with other more free-market types of things) are probably going to catch commerce and delay transits anyway, further down the Great Lakes, for even longer than Lake ice ever will.

It’s not all bad. The really good thing in the bill is the $20 million targeted for the 140-foot Bay Class icebreaking tugs. You can never have too few tugs! And the Coast Guard’s six 140-footers in the Lakes handle the lion’s share of regular breaking, anyway. But they’re old, they’ve been SLEPPED and and they’ll need to be replaced with modern variants. It’s prudent to move forward with a full-press recapitalization there. (And, maybe, we should also recognize the good, solid work done on those 140-footers by the Coast Guard Yard, and send more money over there than Rep. Elaine Luria is trying to do elsewhere in the NDAA.)

So, as I said, Mike’s NDAA amendment isn’t all bad. But it does need some tweaks to stay in the NDAA. Right now, it’s a commerce/infrastructure deal and belongs in the stew of fraught infrastructure legislation that’ll probably not pass. If the icebreaking targets are removed, and the language requiring a purpose-built cutter gets replaced with something that supports a mid-sized open ocean breaker to back Great Lakes needs, then this amendment firmly belongs in the NDAA. But right now, as it’s written, it’s just authorizer bluster that won’t survive the appropriations process.

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