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Coast Guard Commandant Continues Call for More U.S. Icebreakers

USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10). Coast Guard Photo

“If you do not have presence to exert sovereignty, you’re a paper lion,” the Coast Guard commandant said in explaining why the United States needs to build three heavy and two medium icebreakers to operate in polar regions.

Adm. Paul Zukunft, speaking Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the loss of the service’s current heavy icebreaker – the 40-year-old USCGC Polar Star — would leave the U.S. without a key capability.

“It is the one aspect I lose sleep about,” he said.
“There are no heavy icebreakers that we can legitimately lease,” to replace the ship.

He added that reactivating Polar Sea would be very costly with no guarantee how long it could survive the work of breaking through 14- to 16-feet of ice to carry out a mission, such as resupplying the McMurdo Sound station in Antarctica.

In February, the Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for engineering and logistics Rear Adm. Bruce Baffer said the service would not refurbish the mothballed Polar Sea.

Polar Sea is now the parts donor for Polar Star. When we looked at Polar Sea, the hull is in good shape but everything inside the hull was obsolete. There was not a thing inside that hull… that we could replace,” Baffer said.
“The hull is in good shape, but cutting from the top down and rebuilding the ship – virtually every thing on the ship, in place, stick built, it was just too expensive.”

Because there is only one heavy icebreaker, Zukunft said he also was concerned about burning out the current generation of ice captains and crew. “They live a life of 24 hours colliding with ice” and are away from home station for 300 days a year.

The Coast Guard has one medium icebreaker, Healy, in service. Plans call for it to remain in service as the new icebreakers are built and commissioned.

Although, “we’ve seen wide swings in our shipbuilding budget” over the years, “the funding is within the Navy’s budget now” for the new heavy icebreaker. He called for delivery by 2023. Five American shipyards will be bidding for the first contract. He added the icebreaking program is now a program of record for the base budget.

Getting the first one built as quickly and efficiently as possible is important, he said, and the Coast Guard is working with the Navy on the program.

When asked about Russian plans to launch two icebreaking missile corvettes in the future and possible militarization of the region, Zukunft said, “I would call it a me-first” approach. Moscow considers the Northern Route its territorial waters. The United States and China consider it and the Northwest Passage as part of the global commons. The Russians “have got all the pieces on the chess board” while the United States has only a rook and pawn in play in the Arctic, he said.

Cooperation among Arctic nations’ coast guards remains strong, particularly in safety, search and rescue and containing disasters. The United States and Russia, for example, are working together on delineating sea-lanes for the Bering Straits to increase safety there. Next year, the United States will launch two satellites to better enhance maritime awareness in the region.

While energy and mineral exploration continues, low energy prices make it too expensive to extract oil and gas; but he noted that energy prices could rise again. A rise in oil prices from about $50 a barrel to $80 a barrel would make drilling more attractive to nations and energy companies, he added.

That would increase human activity in the Arctic affecting the subsistence living of the indigenous peoples, dependent on fishing and hunting. At the same time, the continued melting of sea ice is opening the far north to more shipping — including cruise ships in a harsh environment with few facilities for medical care and spotty communications. He said one thing that was learned in a recent rescue exercise in Nome, Alaska that even taking in 20 patients would overwhelm health care facilities there. A cruise liner carries about 1,500 passengers and crew. A larger exercise is planned for Iceland next year. For safety reasons in northern waters, “we’re still doing international ice patrols,” started after the sinking of Titanic in 1912.

“The biggest problem” with communications there “is bandwidth,” and that affects all operations. The Arctic nations are exploring a possible information-sharing system to marshal all the resources available to respond to a disaster, but there are questions of national security that are not yet resolved.

On scientific activity in the far north, Zukunft said, “We probably know more about outer space than the Arctic.” He added only about 20 percent of the waters are charted to modern standards.

  • On Dre

    Can we make it stealthy? Can we add mission modules? Can we add a flight deck for MV-22’s or F-35’s? Can we make the contract a cost-plus with all the risk assumed for by the tax payer? No? Then we cant afford it.

    • Luke Shaver

      Stealthy? Probably not it’s an ice breaker but they could design it to be less noticeable on radars/etc, Mission modules? Kinda, there may be a requirement for space, weight and power reserved for offensive and defensive weaponry. Flight deck, probably for only helicopters.

    • Marcd30319

      Speaking of stealthy, your lack of transparency belie your faux outrage.

      • David Thompson

        Right on great comment

  • Kenneth Johnson

    We need nuclear power icebreakers, to stay on station for extended time.

    • David Thompson

      Just don’t burn out crew

      • Donald Carey

        Use Ospreys to rotate crews.

  • John B. Morgen

    We need to build an Arctic Fleet of ice breakers of several categories of ships. We should and must follow the Russian example, in order to protect American sovereignty of American Arctic territories.

  • Robert Pyle

    At the end of ice breaking by the Navy all of it’s current breakers were transferred to the Coast Guard. After that only two polar breakers were built to replace those from World War II/Korea (Wind class and Glacier). Russia continued to build ice breakers, but we stopped thinking we had no need. Well! Here we are in a bind because we have to rely on a 40 year old breaker with no backup or replacement. We should have been building ice breaking capable ships, including tankers (think S.S. Manhattan), and get to work as soon as possible. If we are going to have any part in the Arctic we will need a fleet capable of operating in that area. Ship should be large enough to carry an CV-22 type aircraft which would give it eyes and rescue capability beyond what is being used today. And I agree with “leroy” that we need to stand up a joint Navy/Coast Guard Arctic Command possibly including Canada.

    • Tuomas Romu

      Don’t forget USCGC Healy. With the exception of the four nuclear-powered icebreakers that are currently in service, Russia has exactly three non-nuclear icebreakers that are bigger and more powerful than the Coast Guard’s significantly overperforming “medium icebreaker”, and those are about the same age as Polar Star and Polar Sea.

      Last time I checked, there were no Arctic oil or gas export terminals in western hemisphere. What would you do with the icebreaking tankers?

  • Curtis Conway

    If the Russians are going to field combat ice hardened frigates/corvettes with offensive capabilities, then the next icebreakers should probably be defended with something robust and capable. Perhaps the new frigate review should address this in some way. An ice hardened National Security Cutter serves two purposes, as would a new National Patrol Frigate with an ice hardened hull.

    • Luke Shaver

      According to the Commandant of the USCG, offensive and defense armament may be a requirement for the future ice breakers.

  • Machia

    This is the time to put your needs on the table . Trump will listen to you .

  • Kim Chul Soo

    What’s with the icebreakers? I thought the polar caps were melting?