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Zukunft: Changing Arctic Could Lead to Armed U.S. Icebreakers in Future Fleet

The 420-foot Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in the Bering Sea to assist the tanker Renda on Jan. 8, 2012. US Coast Guard Photo

The U.S. Coast Guard has begun work to design and buy three heavy and three medium polar icebreakers, but the service reserves the right to increase the size of the program or even add offensive weapons to them if needed to respond to a rapidly changing Arctic environment, the commandant said.

Adm. Paul Zukunft told the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee today that three of each icebreakers was the shipbuilding requirement determined in a study five years ago and would still meet today’s requirements.

However, he noted that “ice has retreated at record rates” since then, which makes oil and gas reserves more accessible – which creates a particularly thorny problem for the United States, which would like to claim these resources for its own but hasn’t ratified the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention treaty that would validate this claim.

“We have sovereign interests at stake up there as well. We have seen China, for example, with their icebreaker (in the region). … We have not ratified the Law of the Sea Convention so it is treated like it is a global commons. So if at some point in the future we ratify the Law of the Sea, we stake our claim, I would be naïve to believe the claim would not be challenged by other who claim they have operated there repeatedly and this is now a global commons and next thing we know we see a Chinese mobile offshore drilling unit going into the extended continental shelf to extract what otherwise would be U.S. oil. We see Russia with their 40 [icebreakers], right now, they’re still building their fleet out, prepared to deliver two icebreaking corvettes that will carry cruise missiles in the year 2020,” Zukunft told the subcommittee.
“We have sat down with the Navy and we have created what’s called a Cooperative Strategy for the 21st Century, and when we look at the Arctic, the Navy says, Coast Guard, you’ve got the Artic. So as we look at who has the sole responsibility for exercising sovereignty in the Arctic region, it’s the United States Coast Guard. So that gets us to a point of why we need national assets, icebreakers, to exert sovereignty there. And right now we’re trying to do it with a ship that’s 40 years old, is literally on life support, which is why we’re going to accelerate the delivery of this first icebreaker, and we’ll need another one right behind that so we can deactivate” the only American heavy icebreaker today, USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10).

Zukunft argued that the U.S. needed to maintain persistent presence in the Arctic and Antarctic, leading to the need for three heavy and three medium icebreakers: “you really need three to keep one there permanently; one’s in maintenance, one’s ramping up to get ready and the other’s deployed. … It takes three to make one, which is how we got to three, if we need permanent presence north and south.”

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

Given how rapidly the Arctic is changing, and the potential showdown in the Arctic over U.S. sovereign waters, Zukunft said the Coast Guard was building in some flexibility to change plans if needed down the road.

He added that the icebreaker design will leave room for new capabilities as well, including offensive weapons if needed, if tensions ramp up and the Navy continues to cede the Arctic to the Coast Guard.

“I have to look differently at what an icebreaker does. We need to reserve space, weight and power if we need to strap on an [anti-ship cruise] missile package on it,” he said.

While building out a program of record, “you have a hot production line – maybe 10, 12 years from now the world changes but at least you are producing these at an affordable price, a predictable price, and on schedule,” he said, which would make it easier to continue the production line and build more if needed.
“There may be a change, but at least as we see the world right now, three heavy and three medium would meet today’s requirements based on the threats that we see.”

The first heavy icebreaker is expected to deliver in 2023, and the Coast Guard has so far stood up an integrated program office with the Navy and awarded contracts for industry studies on the future ship’s design and capabilities.

Also during the hearing, Zukunft told lawmakers that he appreciates their past and potentially future endeavors to find more money to continue building National Security Cutters, but he made clear that the Offshore Patrol Cutter is his top priority now and any additions to the NSC program could not come at the expense of OPC.

The Coast Guard originally intended to buy eight NSCs, but in Fiscal Year 2016 Congress awarded money for a ninth. During today’s hearing, subcommittee chairman Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) suggested that during the upcoming FY 2018 budget negotiations, lawmakers may be interested in again increasing the size of the program.

“When we laid out our program of record for eight National Security Cutters – with our biggest concern being, with any additional growth, what risk that would impinge upon the buildout of the Offshore Patrol Cutter – what we received was topline relief to build a ninth National Security Cutter, with long lead time materials – in fact, that ship is under construction right now,” Zukunft said.
“Will we put that ship to use? Absolutely. In fact, today one of our National Security Cutters, the Hamilton – she’s still in her first year of service – she will be returning to port with 17 metric tons of cocaine. In fact, there are 27 metric tons of cocaine on Coast Guard cutters today. So when we looked at our requirements were for our entire fleet, the full program of record, we didn’t add global refugee flows, we did not have trafficking activity, we weren’t addressing the Nine Dash Line, and we weren’t addressing potential conflict with North Korea. So the world has changed in a much more accelerated pace since we built out this program of record. But I’ll be specific – the Offshore Patrol Cutter is our number one priority in recapitalizing our legacy fleet today. A tenth National Security Cutter, if that is funded above the topline, will we put it to use? Absolutely. But we need to look at what the follow-on out-year costs are, not just the initial acquisition. As I mentioned earlier, it’s our annualized operations and maintenance funding – that needs to be built into this algorithm as well, not just acquisition but the sustainment piece of that as well.”

An artist’s conception of Eastern Shipbuilding’s Offshore Patrol Cutter design.

On the Offshore Patrol Cutter, for which Eastern Shipbuilding was awarded a $110 million contract for the first hull and options for eight more in September 2016, the commandant said “we are on target and tracking. … The ‘17 budget, it puts the long lead time materials in place. I have been down to Eastern Shipbuilding and they are ready to cut steel, to put that first ship in the water in the year 2021. So I am very confident that they will deliver a top-quality product on budget and on time.”

A fourth ongoing shipbuilding program for the Coast Guard is the inland tender, which the Coast Guard operates 35 of and whose average age is 52. Zukunft said the tenders protect inland river systems that contribute to $4.5 trillion in commerce every year, and the importance of finding an effective replacement cannot be understated.

“We’ve already reached out to the Army Corps of Engineers and are looking for a commercial off the shelf design for an inland tender that could be modified, depending on where it’s going to be operating, but would have the same engines, basically the same design, and could be built for roughly about $25 million a copy in a commercial shipyard here in the United States, which would also stimulate job growth as well,” he said.

Additional details about the Coast Guard’s FY 2018 needs will be revealed when the administration’s budget request is sent to Congress next week. These budget hearings are typically held after the budget goes out, but Carter noted that with a late start to budget season this year the subcommittee wanted to get a jump-start on its hearings.

  • sferrin

    Wow. One icebreaker deployed huh? Wonder how that stacks up to what Russia AND China will field (some of them even nuclear powered). Almost makes one wonder why bother at all. By comparison it’s worse than token presence. The USCG needs icebreakers as well armed as Burkes, or at least icebreakers capable enough to clear paths for actual Burkes. Short of that, may as well stay on the porch.

    • E1 Kabong

      Wow.

      Clearly, you’ve NEVER seen what naval operations occur in the Arctic.

      Should I point out the landmasses that surround the Arctic?
      Something about, “unsinkable aircraft carriers”….

      • I didn’t know that Arctic flying weather was that benign. Maybe someone here can comment on tanking at nite in a blizzard.

        • E1 Kabong

          You clearly don’t know much.

          Care to chat about carrier ops in the Arctic?
          How about those frigate and destroyer cruises in the far north?

          How would “… tanking at nite in a blizzard.” be ANY different anywhere else in the world?

          Every talk to a USAF Alaska based, Canadian, Swedish or Norwegian pilot?

          • El Kabong – clearly you are a tremendously superior flier. Your log book must surpass Chuck Yeager and John Boyd’s combined. Bet you’ve had a hundred hours riding the boom and that you catch the basket every time you try. There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are NO OLD BOLD pilots. Take the word of an old pilot. Then again flying is always easy in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

          • Curtis Conway

            I HAVE ridden a guided Missile Cruiser above the Arctic Circle, and I can tell you that in heavy weather, with potential ice in the ocean, it is not a light thing to engage in.

          • You would have been safer on a submerged nuclear submarine. And there tends to be a lot more “nite” in the Arctic – wouldn’t matter on a sub.

          • E1 Kabong

            Clearly, you’re a keyboard commando.

            Still living in mom’s basement.
            Sad….

            Answer the questions.

    • Curtis Conway

      Ice-hardened hull frigates.

  • Someone call Curtis Conway!

    • Curtis Conway

      Do you think they are reading my stuff?

      • I don’t know about them, but I’m on-board. Even if they are, slim chance they’ll give you any credit.

        • Curtis Conway

          With the advent of the Saudi deal, I would go for reworking EXISTING LCS in this new configuration with a few upgrades, and it be the low end mix for Pacific Littoral Operations, particularly supporting SOF and Marine Operations. A Hi-end, more capable unit with an ice-hardened hull for Arctic/Antarctic Operations, with greater displacement, and more capable multi-warfare combat system is needed. This new Hi-end unit would be the introductory platform for the more Passive-Centric combat system, introduction of Directed Energy and Electro Magnetic Rail Gun, and use a non-rotating 3D AESA Radar as the centerpiece of the new combat system for Active Operations, and support Passive Operations with the receive side.

          • Nice idea. I’d settle for a couple of nuclear powered ice breakers armed with a reliable conventional weapons system. On the other hand, if you have a nuc plant you can make enough electricity for all of those EM gizmos and a big time radar; just stay away from EM cats – they p… off the CinC.

      • PolicyWonk

        If they aren’t, they should be!

        However, while I appreciate that they are planning three heavy and three medium ice breakers, I believe they should double the order, as presence in the arctic is as vital as anywhere given the shrinking ice caps.

        And, I believe we would benefit from six ice hardened NSC’s, to patrol the lower arctic regions.

  • Hugh

    Surely the Law of the Sea Convention applies whether the adjacent country has ratified it or not. Also, formalise the claim and keep up a continual Coast Guard and Navy (including submarines) presence covering all such waters – 200 nm, or 320 nm where the continental shelf extends.

    • Kronnus

      I don’t think that’s right. What the Commandant is saying is that if the US doesn’t ratify UNCLOS, then it has no right to make extended continental shelf claims (see Wikipedia: /wiki/Territorial_claims_in_the_Arctic#United_States_of_America). The Heritage Foundation basically agrees with this interpretation, but doesn’t advocate signing: (see Heritage Foundation: /report/un-convention-the-law-the-sea-erodes-us-sovereignty-over-us-extended-continental-shelf)

  • John B. Morgen

    The heavy ice breakers should be 600+ feet, and armed as if the vessel is going to war. About 12 or more should be built as quickly as possible…..The ice is melting faster than we can build ships.

    • redgriffin

      So Like the old Wind Class Icebreaker?

      • John B. Morgen

        Larger than the Polar Star, or many times larger than the Wind class. Think in terms of the Soviet Union’s larger ice breakers, such as the Lenin class, etc.

        • redgriffin

          So you want a scientific research ship armed to the teeth? With what 8″ Guns, Rail Guns?

          • John B. Morgen

            What I want is a large but well armed ice breaker. I will accept 155mm guns instead of 8-inch guns. As far as the rail guns are concern, rail guns are nothing more than a myth until the Navy comes out with production model that works. The Navy has been working on this project for many decades, and nothing has really appeared, except for test models.

          • redgriffin

            Who are you planning to fight pirate Elephant Seals, Wicked Walruses or Commie Penguins? No icebreaker is armed today because they are research ships also US Icebreakers are built and manned by the US Coast Guard just like Canada’s are manned by their Coast Guard. We have no need for a armed ice breaker in today’s world.

          • John B. Morgen

            Within ten years the world that we know will be changing, as several nation-states will be starting to develop the Arctic Ocean region. Ice breaker designed ships will be needed for such enterprises. So, think again, the thinning the ice has already started.

          • redgriffin

            Really your a year late with this news the North Pole was clear of ice last year but I see no reason to escalate a situation that doesn’t even exist right now and seems to be resolving itself in different ways that wouldn’t need an armed approach. SO I would think long and hard before I’d start putting artillery aboard the Science and Research Vessels of the nation.

          • John B. Morgen

            Who said anything about building science and research vessels? There’s still ice at the North Pole.

          • redgriffin

            and Ice breaker is considered a research vessel which monitors ice conditions and the effect of warming temperatures on the ice.

          • John B. Morgen

            During World War II and also during the early part of the Cold War era, both the United States Navy’s and Coast Guard ice breakers were armed.

          • redgriffin

            Yes and the Coast Guard was part of the Navy and they were out looking for German Weather Stations in the Artic. Because we are not at war at this time and I challenge you to find 1 country that arms their polar exploration ships. Which begs the question who are you planning to start your war with?

          • John B. Morgen

            The Soviet Union/Russia built two classes of ice breakers that were armed: the Dobrynyqa Nikitich; and the Ivan Susanin. The latter class is still active.

          • redgriffin

            Are they still armed today?

          • John B. Morgen

            The latter class is still active and armed, which Russia should be thinking about replacing them due to their age. The Ivan Susanin is about the size the United States Navy’s Wind class. In fact, three of the Wind class ice breakers were loaned to the Soviet Union during World War II, which were later returned in 1949..

          • redgriffin

            Were the Ivan Susanin Class built before 1957?

          • John B. Morgen

            No, after 1957.

          • redgriffin

            Oh yes Russian Border Guards who call those ships Patrol Icebreakers. I still don’t see why we should build armed icebreakers with 155mm guns just because the Russian Coast Guard has 9 armed with 76mm guns so again I ask who do you plan to fight with the heavily armed craft?

          • John B. Morgen

            It is best to be ready for a possible engagement with the Russians, and since Russia has aggressive plans about harvesting the Arctic’s resources. Furthermore, our relations with Russians have not been good because now Russia is threatening to shoot down any Allied aircraft flying over Syria during anti-ISIS operations. Already Russia has launched her largest ice breaker, which could be armed……

          • redgriffin

            Considering that the icebreaker that has you so scared has only 76mm guns as their largest armament maybe we would be best served to put cruise missiles on our icebreakers so we could really teach Putin a lesson. Or we could leave our Breakers unarmed like everyone else and just cruise on our way.

          • John B. Morgen

            No I’m not scared, I just want to be prepared for possible conflicts with the Russians in the Arctic.

          • redgriffin

            We are as likely to get in a war with Russia as with China which I highly doubt. It’s North Korea I worry about not the Great White North.

          • John B. Morgen

            Most likely China will take care of North Korean problem because it will be in China'[s best interests of [not] having a sudden American naval build-up in the East China Sea and Yellow Sea regions.

          • redgriffin

            If you say so you are by far a better naval Tactician.

          • John B. Morgen

            The Chinese cannot afford an increase of American forces into the region because such a large American presence would thwart China’s plans of invading Taiwan.

          • redgriffin

            In the Yellow Sea? In the East China you need to learn to read a map.

          • John B. Morgen

            I don’t think so!

          • redgriffin

            I do the US wouldn’t put any bases that close to China unless they were in Korea.

          • John B. Morgen

            There’s always Taiwan.

          • redgriffin

            For Taiwan the combat zone would be the Taiwan Straits. For Korea it would be WWIII.

          • John B. Morgen

            It doesn’t really matter where the fighting will be taking place because it’s going to be a big mess of things—anyway.

          • redgriffin

            You must tell me what an icebreaker has to do with a US Naval Build up in the Yellow Sea and East China Seas in fact why would the US Navy even go to those seas for a build up?

          • John B. Morgen

            The above comment of mine has no mention about ice breakers, just about American naval buildup in nearby regional seas that affect both Japan and Taiwan defense.

          • redgriffin

            Yes but we started talking about Icebreakers I’m just trying to see the connection.

          • John B. Morgen

            Keep working on it.

          • redgriffin

            Oh so you are back still can’t see any connection.

          • John B. Morgen

            The issue is naval/maritime dominance of any region of the oceans by any means.

          • redgriffin

            So your saying that 5 Aircraft carriers are beaten by on training carriers and 50 missile boats?

          • John B. Morgen

            Plan is planning to build three or four aircraft carriers, still adding guided missile destroyers, nuclear powered submarines of all types. So do not kid yourself about the Chinese.

          • redgriffin

            I never under estimate 2 billion people.

          • John B. Morgen

            II think China has more than 2 billion people.

          • Keith Sketchley

            Read the article, which says Russia is building armed icebreakers.

  • Richard Wight

    When I served on NORTHWIND 1953-55, we had weapons – a twin 5″38 gun mount, hedgehog ASW weapon etc….

    Later I was the electronics project officer when we took over the Navy icebreakers (1965, as I recall). All 5 of them were armed as well…. We had 8 polar icebreakers at that time, all of them busy! I was also on an icebreaker design board to build a nukie-powered one. It never happened…..

  • Curtis Conway

    Perhaps the concept that a single hull can meet many missions, or at least parts of systems can be shared between hulls. The new Icebreaker propulsion system can power a new cruiser. A significant part of new cruiser development, combined with command ship functions, can very easily fit on a new Arctic/Antarctic Icebreaker/Command Ship. Hope the Icebreaker has a well deck with Ship-to-Shore Connectors, large flight deck and hangar facilities with perhaps an elevator, and a Nuclear Power Plant.