In the final presidential debate, when explaining why the Navy has fewer ships than in 1916, President Obama famously quipped that the United States also has "fewer horses and bayonets," setting off a debate over quality versus quantity.
In the Arctic -- an increasingly important part of the world -- the situation is simpler. When it comes to patrolling and securing the Arctic, the United States has neither quality nor quantity.
Melting Arctic sea ice is opening up previously unnavigable areas to shipping and drilling. Already, the maritime area in which the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for safety, security and environmental protection missions is experiencing a significant increase in traffic.
To meet this challenge, the Coast Guard has three Arctic-capable icebreakers: two heavy-duty icebreakers -- both of which were commissioned in the mid-1970s -- and a more modern medium-duty icebreaker, the Healy. Were all three operational, the United States would lag behind several other Arctic nations in capabilities; in fact, only one, the Healy, is currently operational. According to a Coast Guard study, it will need at least six heavy-duty and four medium icebreakers just to meet mission requirements.
The 2013 fiscal-year budget includes money to begin the acquisition of one icebreaker, but it remains unpassed. With the threat of automatic spending cuts in early 2013 -- and other cuts to the defense budget likely even if the so-called fiscal cliff is averted -- there seems to be little appetite in Washington to invest in new and upgraded Arctic-capable systems.
Thus, for all the talk of projecting power abroad and ensuring the freedom of the seas, we are unable to effectively patrol the waters off our own territory, and this in an area whose importance is growing at a rate perhaps second only to that of the Asia- Pacific region. …