Pressure Builds for New Polar Icebreaker

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

As the Arctic Ocean’s ice melts, the Navy and the rest of the United States must rely on the cash-strapped Coast Guard to maintain the nation’s icebreaker fleet.

Of the Coast Guard’s three icebreakers, only two are operational. More pressure is being put on the service to build a new heavy-duty vessel. During a December hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s subcommittee on Coast Guard and maritime transportation, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard said the service had made some headway in procuring a new ice-breaking ship.

“We continue to evaluate the requirements for a new polar icebreaker,” Vice Adm. John P. Currier testified. “The Coast Guard has … initiated activities to support the acquisition of a new polar icebreaker to maintain long-term Coast Guard mission capabilities in the high latitude regions.”

The service so far has completed a mission needs statement as well as a concept of operations and environmental conditions analysis report, Currier said.

The Coast Guard has a statutory responsibility to maintain icebreakers for the United States.

It would cost $1 billion to procure a new polar icebreaker, Currier said, and that is too steep a price for the Coast Guard to take on alone. There needs to be a “whole-of-government solution” with entities such as the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department participating. Any organization that has a “stake in the Arctic” should contribute to ship requirements and help foot the bill, he said.

“A billion dollars is clearly not something we [alone] can absorb,” Currier said.

The ship will be used for more than just Coast Guard needs, he said.

“What I don’t want people to think is that the Coast Guard is advocating or looking to procure a new-start icebreaker for a billion dollars that is strictly to address Coast Guard requirements,” Currier said.

Brian Slattery, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said it is unlikely that the Coast Guard will procure a new heavy polar icebreaker in the near future.

The Coast Guard’s budget has steadily declined year after year, Slattery said. It isn’t possible for the service to bear the full cost. The Coast Guard is also attempting to procure a number of new vessels — such as national security cutters and offshore patrol cutters — which is further straining its budget, he said.

“There is a lot of demand for resources in procurement, so they will be stretched pretty thin. I don’t think it’s feasible that they will be able to afford one of these heavy-duty icebreakers,” Slattery said.

It is also improbable that any other agency will assist the Coast Guard in funding the ship, he said.

Heritage has proposed leasing commercial icebreakers from foreign nations. The measure has been met with some criticism over potential security concerns. But if the Coast Guard cannot procure a new vessel, it is a cost-effective option, Slattery said.

“In the Arctic, operationally, it would make sense … because there are some vessels that are pre-existing, [so] it would cost less to lease them and just use them for services needed, not having them in the fleet necessarily,” he said.

The United States could lease ships from Finland or Russia, he said.

In Antarctica, the United States already leases the services of a Russian icebreaker to gain access to McMurdo Station, a research facility on Ross Island, Slattery said.

“It would be much more cost-effective for the U.S. to do this than to attempt to build a billion dollar vessel with very limited resources,” he said.

It is possible the Coast Guard will embrace the leasing option as more interest in the Arctic is drummed up in the coming years, Slattery said.

“Right now, there is a lot of interest being generated in the Arctic, but the actual activity that’s following that interest hasn’t ramped up so much yet. I think in the next couple [of] decades there’s going to be a massive movement up there in terms of interest in natural resources, fisheries and things like that,” he said. “It will only become more urgent that we need icebreaking capabilities in the region in the years to come.”

The Coast Guard owns three icebreakers. The Polar Sea is mothballed. The Polar Star recently emerged from a multi-million dollar overhaul. Both are heavy-duty ships. The third, the Healy, was commissioned primarily for scientific purposes and is a medium-duty vessel.

As for potentially refurbishing the Polar Sea to fill the ice-breaking gap, Currier said the service currently has no plans to do so. A recent study found that it would cost about $100 million to add five to seven years of service life to the Polar Sea. The Polar Star, which recently embarked to Antarctica, was upgraded at a cost of $62 million, he said.

Slattery said it was unlikely the Coast Guard would decide to repair the Polar Sea.

“I’m not an engineer, but I’ve heard repeatedly from the Coast Guard that at best it’s a poor investment, and at worst it wouldn’t even be possible,” he said. “The Polar Star was in much better condition [when it broke down] than the Polar Sea.”                     

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy, Energy, International, Shipbuilding

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