Vice Adm. Robert Parker, the Coast Guard's Atlantic Area commander, speaks Thursday at the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium outside Washington, D.C. (Mike Morones / Staff)
Continued upgrades to the cutter fleet, further development of an Arctic strategy and the selection of new leadership are at the top of the US Coast Guard’s to-do list in 2014, Vice Adm. Rob Parker, the service’s Atlantic Area commander, said Thursday.
Parker gave the annual Coast Guard update at the Surface Navy Association’s symposium outside Washington, D.C., filling in for outgoing commandant Adm. Bob Papp, who delivered the address at the three previous meetings during his tenure.
The national security cutter was front and center, as the recently-christened Hamilton — the fourth in the fleet — goes through the commissioning process and prepares to head to Charleston, S.C., later this year.
The James — fifth in line — is scheduled to enter service in 2017. The Munro, No. 6, has had its contract awarded; fabrication began in October. There is funding for a seventh NSC, Kimball, to enter the pipeline this year.
The national security cutter program has asked for eight cutters, though the last one is unfunded. The 418-foot vessels will replace the fleet’s 378-foot high endurance cutters, which began service in the 1960s.
In addition to technology and versatility upgrades, Parker said, the national security cutter offers an opportunity to bring more women on board.
“Probably the least heralded piece of this is the ability ... with the berthing arrangements we have, to really be agile in terms of who comes on board and where you put them,” he said.
Same goes for the new patrol boats, he added, which will also allow more women a place to stay.
Fast response cutters are also on track to replace the old medium endurance cutters, with eight of the program’s slated 58 ships completed and 16 under contract.
The next frontier
As the Coast Guard looks to a greater Arctic presence, its acquisitions directorate is in the preliminary phases of a new project to add more icebreakers to the fleet.
Parker recalled attending the Arctic Defense Chiefs conference in Goose Bay, Canada, last spring, where military chiefs from eight Arctic nations came together to discuss strategy for governing the increasingly navigable waterways up north.
“I found it fascinating that eight military guys, basically, were deciding not to militarize the Arctic,” he said. “That’s an interesting conclusion, and I think the lesson out of that was, you don’t want this to be a defense problem, you want this to be a governance and security problem.”
The Coast Guard is the natural choice to take on that mission for the U.S., Parker said, but the service’s capabilities aren’t currently up to snuff.
The cutter Healy is the youngest in the polar icebreaker fleet, Parker said, at 15 years old.
“It’s a great ship if you’re a scientist,” he said. “It’s a decent icebreaker, but if you try to do things like the Russians and the Chinese just did, you will get stuck, too.”
Parker was referring to a Russian research ship that recently became trapped in Antarctica. The Russians asked a Chinese ship to help rescue them; that ship also got stuck in the ice. The Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star, recently refurbished, was on its way to help free them both when the weather shifted and they were able to clear the ice.
“It’s not the biggest icebreaker out there, but for the conventional ones, it is the baddest,” Parker said of Polar Star.
The Polar Sea — sidelined with engine troubles since 2010 — makes three icebreakers, he said, “but this is it. That’s all we got.”
He said that the service plans to stay in the Arctic national security discussion because, he said, “what’s coming up for the Arctic is pretty tough.”
As far as resources, he said, 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas and an estimated $2 trillion worth of minerals are buried below the disappearing ice.
More than a million tons of cargo passed through the Arctic last year, he said, and he expects about a million tourists will visit the region this year. For now, he said, the icebreakers are the best bet in terms of responding to rescue requests or oil spills in the near future.
Top jobs open
Papp is set to retire in May. Late last year the service put out a call for applications for the next commandant. Parker could not confirm whether he was in the running.
“I was privileged to apply. First of all, I never thought I’d be in this position. And obviously, this is an announcement that is up to the president,” Parker said. “I can guarantee you that the person who gets that position is a Coast Guard officer. I know the person, too, and he’s a great guy.”
Parker is one of five three-star admirals who could replace Papp. Others include vice commandant Vice Adm. John Currier, Pacific Area commander Vice Adm. Paul Zunkunft, deputy commandant for operations Vice Adm. Peter Neffenger and deputy commandant for mission support Vice Adm. Manson Brown.
The service’s top enlisted member, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Michael Leavitt, also will leave his post in 2014.