New Coast Guard Icebreaker Remains on Tight Schedule
Technology Associates, Inc. illustration
The Coast Guard is continuing to modernize its fleet of icebreakers as peer adversaries ramp up their presence in the Arctic and improve their own ships. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is not expected to derail the service’s effort.
In recent months, Russia has announced that it plans to design a new nuclear-powered icebreaker that will be able to provide year-round navigation, and Chinese state media has reported that Beijing’s two research vessels completed their 36th expedition to the Antarctic, heightening the importance of building up the United States’ own capabilities. The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy identifies China and Russia as great power competitors.
“The Coast Guard operates our nation’s only icebreaker fleet countering malign influence as our nation’s most persistent surface military presence at the polar regions,” Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said during his State of the Coast Guard speech in Charleston, South Carolina. “We do this with just two cutters — one heavy and one medium icebreaker. This is a woefully unacceptable level of presence in an area where we must be a leading force.”
To counter these threats, the Coast Guard will need to invest in a family of new icebreakers, and the service has embarked on a program known as the polar security cutter to meet those needs.
Last year, the Coast Guard released a strategy titled, “United States Coast Guard: Arctic Strategic Outlook,” that highlights the growing role of icebreakers in the Arctic. Melting glaciers are opening up valuable shipping routes and access to resources, spurring China and Russia to increase their presence.
“America’s competitors have shown a willingness to work within established frameworks when advantageous to them, but they are just as willing to work outside these frameworks to further their ambitions or spoil the interests of others,” the report said.
Schultz told lawmakers in March that China’s icebreaker capabilities are surpassing those of the United States. A few years ago, Beijing obtained a research vessel from Ukraine dubbed the Snow Dragon. Now, they have a domestically built icebreaker called the Snow Dragon II.
“By 2025, arguably China will have more ice breaking capacity than the United States government,” Schultz said in testimony to the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on homeland security. The Coast Guard is part of DHS, even though it is an armed service.
Russia is also continuing to expand its presence along the Northern Sea Route, he noted. Moscow is deriving about a quarter of its gross domestic product from Arctic activities, and is continuously increasing the amount of cargo it passes through the route on an annual basis, he said. The Coast Guard and its icebreakers are the United States’ main capability in the area, he noted.
“That is the only sort of high-level capabilities that we have,” Schultz said.
The Coast Guard currently has only one 399-foot heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, and one 420-foot medium icebreaker, USCGC Healy. The Polar Star is about 45 years old. This year, the ship completed its 23rd trip to Antarctica for Operation Deep Freeze, according to a Coast Guard news release. The operation was a mission to resupply the U.S stations in the Antarctic — such as McMurdo Station on the tip of Ross Island — and was in support of the National Science Foundation.
As part of its modernization effort, the service wants to procure three new heavy icebreakers and three medium vessels. In April 2019, VT Halter Marine was awarded a $745 million firm, fixed price incentive contract for the detail design and construction of the lead vessel. The contract includes options for a second and third vessel. The service’s fiscal year 2021 budget request contains $555 million for the program, which includes funding for a second ship.
Additionally, VT Halter is continuing to work on the lead polar security cutter and was awarded a $1.7 million grant in April for a press brake, which will help construction by shaping plates with hydraulic rams, according to a news release. The company plans to begin construction next year at the company’s Pascagoula, Mississippi, shipyard.
“Obtaining this new, modern equipment enables VT Halter Marine to continue to leverage information technology and to modernize our shipyard as we build America’s first heavy icebreaker (the polar security cutter) in 40 years,” Ron Baczkowski, president and CEO of the company, said in the release.
Delivery is scheduled for 2024, Schultz said in testimony. The service is pursuing an “aggressive” timeline, and could potentially move delivery to 2023, he noted. The procurement contract includes financial incentives for earlier delivery dates.
“We’re trying to do this in six years, but I think we’ve got a ... really good shot of being very successful here,” he said. “Pulling it to the left of ’24, as a betting man I would say let’s see on that. But getting that ship in ’24 — I’m pretty darn encouraged that we’re going to get there.”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is affecting numerous shipbuilding programs throughout the military. In late April, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James “Hondo” Geurts said so far, shipbuilding programs that are still in the design phase — as the polar security cutter is — are faring well.
“We’ve proven across all our shipyards an ability to keep a high percentage of design work going on schedule,” he said during a teleconference with reporters.
The Navy and Coast Guard have established a joint program office for the polar security cutter.
Despite the pandemic, the program is on track to deliver the ship in June 2024, VT Halter Marine said in a statement. The program baseline review is completed and is in the design stage.
“VT Halter Marine is on schedule with the polar security cutter,” the company said. “We have invested in improving operational processes and enhancing infrastructure of the yard such as the launching facilities. We have also worked on improving automation of the production process.”
In March, the Congressional Research Service noted that the service could employ a block buy contract as it pursues the program. That would reduce the combined acquisition costs of the first three ships by about 7 percent, or about $150 million total, according to the report titled, “Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter (Polar Icebreaker) Program: Background and Issues for Congress.” The block buy method has been successful for Navy programs such as the Virginia-class attack submarines, littoral combat ships and John Lewis-class oilers, the report said.
“Compared to a contract with options, a block buy contract would reduce the government’s flexibility regarding whether and when to acquire the second and third ships, and what design to build them to, and in return reduce the combined acquisition cost of the ships covered by the contract,” the report said.
Additionally, the report flagged a potential issue for Congress which includes the ship’s funding through the Navy. The Navy provided $300 million for the program in fiscal year 2020, the report said. This “can raise a question as to whether that funding would otherwise go toward the acquisition of Navy ships,” and could add “complexity in tracking and executing funding for Coast Guard ship acquisition,” according to the study.
The program also has technical, schedule and cost risks, according to the report. VT Halter designed the new ship based on the German icebreaker Polar Stern II, which is currently in design and construction. Moving forward, the Coast Guard should consider how much of the Polar Stern’s design and construction was completed at the time of VT Halter’s decision to base its own design on the vessel, CRS said.
“How closely related is the PSC’s design to Polar Stern II’s design? How many changes were made to Polar Stern II’s design to develop the PSC design? What were these changes, and what technical, schedule and cost risks, if any, might arise from them?” the report asked.
Additionally, Congress will need to decide whether or not to approve the requested procurement funding for fiscal year 2021, which includes reprogramming funding from fiscal year 2020 from a 12th national security cutter to the polar security cutter program.
“Congress may consider, among other things, whether the Coast Guard has accurately priced the work it is proposing to do in the PSC program in FY 2021, and whether a 12th NSC is to be procured,” the study said.
There is also uncertainty about when Congress will pass its annual appropriations for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Analysts and other observers say it is unlikely to happen before the November elections.
In the meantime, the service will continue to extend the life of the current Polar Star until the delivery of the second new icebreaker, Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray said in testimony. The life extension work is expected to cost about $75 million at a rate of about $15 million per year, according to CRS.
“Robust planning efforts for a service life extension project on Polar Star are already underway and initial work for this project will begin in 2020, with phased industrial work occurring annually from 2021 through 2023,” Ray told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation and maritime security in February.
The service is also mulling over what its medium-duty icebreakers may look like and is beginning to lay out requirements for them, Schultz noted.
“How different does a medium breaker look from the polar security cutter? What might the price break be?” he said.
“Do we talk about more polar security cutters?” he added. “We have some requirements work to do.”
Topics: Maritime Security