The cost to build one new polar icebreaker for the Coast Guard may top $1 billion, a Congressional Research Service report recently stated.
And that’s in 2012 dollars. When work will start in earnest and how much it will cost when it begins is still unknown.
Chronically underfunded even in the best of fiscal times, the Coast Guard spends about $900 million per year to recapitalize all its ships and aircraft.
“It’s the equivalent of telling the Navy they have to suddenly fund another aircraft carrier,” said Patrick Bright, chief analytical officer at AMI International, a shipbuilding consulting firm in Bremerton, Wash.
Brian Slattery, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said, “Even if the icebreaker was the only acquisition priority for the Coast Guard, it would be tough to afford it.”
The service has known for decades that its statutory obligation to be the sole federal agency responsible for busting through polar ice was at risk. A 1983 polar icebreaking requirements study it produced spelled out the upcoming shortages.
“Design of a new icebreaker should start immediately, emphasizing research as well as escort and logistics capabilities, and should reflect the needs of both primary and secondary users,” the report stated. Since then, the service was forced to retire several icebreakers and was only allocated the funding to build one, the Healy. It is a medium-size ship intended for scientific research, and was not commissioned until 16 years after the 1983 report.
The Coast Guard now only has two heavy polar icebreakers remaining, the Polar Star and Polar Sea, which have exceeded their 30-year service lives and have been in and out of mothballs for several years.
Polar Star, after undergoing repairs, returned to service in December after six years of being docked. After upgrades, it is expected to last another seven to 10 years, said the March 2013 CRS report, “Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization,” authored by Ronald O’Rourke.
Polar Sea broke down in 2010 and is no longer operational, the report added.
A 2011 study for Congress said one heavy icebreaker would cost $800 million to $925 million based on 2008 dollars, but by 2012 it would swell to $900 million to $1 billion.
The Coast Guard has requested relatively small amounts in the 2013 and 2014 budgets — $8 million and $2 million respectively — to kick off the acquisition program with an eye toward awarding a contract in about five years, and delivery in 10, about the time Polar Star would be decommissioned.
O’Rourke said Congress will have to decide whether it will fund a new ship all at once, or incrementally. A one-year allocation may come at the expense of other shipbuilding programs, he noted.
The Coast Guard during the corresponding 10 years will be attempting to acquire some 25 offshore patrol cutters, one of its most expensive acquisition programs to date. It is currently having a hard time completing its fleet of eight national security cutters. It is requesting funding for the seventh for fiscal year 2014. Whether it will receive the greenlight from Congress to build the eighth in these austere budgetary times remains to be seen.
The national security cutter, a sophisticated ship with expensive weapons, communications and sensors, costs almost half the amount of an icebreaker, which doesn’t require any of those high-tech systems, Bright said.
The unique ships use mass and velocity to move through frozen waters. As they are propelled forward, they move up onto the ice, and the weight of the hull breaks it. That requires a large ship with powerful engines, a 2007 National Academies study on the Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet stated. It also has reinforced steel and a double hull at the bow in case of a breach.
“Protecting the rudders and propellers or propulsion units is of paramount importance in icebreaker hull design,” it also stated. They must not protrude from the ship.
Despite the lack of weapons and other high-tech systems, “there are also special items that go on those ships, and that jacks prices up,” Bright said.
And “at 13,000 to 17,000 tons, that is an awful lot of steel to buy,” he added.
Slattery said the seven- to 10-year estimate of additional service life for the Polar Star is “generous.”
“It is unrealistic that that replacement vessel will come online by the time they are going to have to pull the Polar Star out for good,” he added.
It has been about 40 years since U.S. industry has built a heavy icebreaker.
The medium-sized Healy was built by Avondale Shipyards in Louisiana, which has changed hands twice and is now owned by Huntington Ingalls Industries. It announced its plans to shutter the old Avondale yard this year, then reversed course, and said it would now build oil and gas exploration equipment, according to a company press release.
Even $200 million per year in incremental funding would be a “pretty significant chunk of the entire recapitalization budget,” Slattery said.
That’s not the worst of it. This high pricetag is only for one vessel. The requirements on the books call for three medium and three heavy icebreakers, he noted.
The Healy is essentially a research vessel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he pointed out.
The Heritage Foundation has suggested leasing private icebreakers to at least mitigate the gap in capability. That would provide the government with the most essential capability, “which is breaking the ice so we can get to places that regular vessels cannot get to.”
O’Rourke said along with leasing, there have also been plans to ask other federal agencies such as the Navy, which benefit from the icebreakers, to chip in some of the money.
During a recent budget hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chair of the homeland security appropriations committee, said lawmakers would look for icebreaker funding from outside the Department of Homeland Security budget, according to SeaPower Magazine.
Adm. Robert Papp Jr., commandant of the Coast Guard, testified at a different hearing that there were no icebreakers available in the world to lease. A for-hire ship would have to be purpose-built, the CRS report said.
“It almost seems like one of those things that is never going to happen based on price,” Bright said.Photo Credit: Coast Guard