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Report to Congress on U.S. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Program

The following is the July 9, 2018 Congressional Research Report, Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Program: Background and Issues for Congress.

From the report:

The Coast Guard polar icebreaker program is a program to acquire three new heavy polar icebreakers, to be followed years from now by the acquisition of up to three new medium polar icebreakers. The Coast Guard wants to begin construction of the first new heavy polar icebreaker in FY2019 and have it enter service in 2023. The polar icebreaker program has received about $359.6 million in acquisition funding through FY2018, including $300 million provided through the Navy’s shipbuilding account and $59.6 million provided through the Coast Guard’s acquisition account. The Coast Guard’s proposed FY2019 budget requests $750 million in Coast Guard acquisition funding for the program.

The acquisition cost of a new heavy polar icebreaker had earlier been estimated informally at roughly $1 billion, but the Coast Guard and Navy now believe that three heavy polar icebreakers could be acquired for a total cost of about $2.1 billion, or an average of about $700 million per ship. The first ship will cost more than the other two because it will incorporate design costs for the class and be at the start of the production learning curve for the class. When combined with the program’s $359.6 million in prior-year funding, the $750 million requested for FY2019 would fully fund the procurement of the first new heavy polar icebreaker and partially fund the procurement of the second.

The operational U.S. polar icebreaking fleet currently consists of one heavy polar icebreaker, Polar Star, and one medium polar icebreaker, Healy. In addition to Polar Star, the Coast Guard has a second heavy polar icebreaker, Polar Sea. Polar Sea, however, suffered an engine casualty in June 2010 and has been nonoperational since then. Polar Star and Polar Sea entered service in 1976 and 1978, respectively, and are now well beyond their originally intended 30-year service lives. The Coast Guard has used Polar Sea as a source of spare parts for keeping Polar Star operational.

A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Mission Need Statement (MNS) approved in June 2013 states that “current requirements and future projections … indicate the Coast Guard will need to expand its icebreaking capacity, potentially requiring a fleet of up to six icebreakers (3 heavy and 3 medium) to adequately meet mission demands in the high latitudes….”

The current condition of the U.S. polar icebreaker fleet, the DHS MNS, and concerns among some observers about whether the United States is adequately investing in capabilities to carry out its responsibilities and defend its interests in the Arctic, have focused policymaker attention on the question of whether and when to acquire one or more new heavy polar icebreakers as replacements for Polar Star and Polar Sea.

On March 2, 2018, the U.S. Navy, in collaboration with the U.S. Coast Guard under the polar icebreaker integrated program office, released a request for proposal (RFP) for the advance procurement and detail design for the Coast Guard’s heavy polar icebreaker, with options for detail design and construction for up to three heavy polar icebreakers.

Issues for Congress for FY2019 for the polar icebreaker program include, inter alia, whether to approve, reject, or modify the Coast Guard’s FY2019 acquisition funding request; whether to use a contract with options or a block buy contract to acquire the ships; whether to continue providing at least some of the acquisition funding for the polar icebreaker program through the Navy’s shipbuilding account; and whether to procure heavy and medium polar icebreakers to a common basic design.

via fas.org

  • Curtis Conway

    The longer we WAIT, the worse this situation is going to get, and the more expensive the solution will be.
    The need has been staring the United States in the face for decades. Our Allies and adversaries have responded, as we plan (sorta) and wring our hands. Time for action. A Plan and Funding must come forth. This issue has been studied cold far too long. Stakeholder institutions must step up for long term Arctic participation, not just USNORTHCOM, the NSF, and the US Coast Guard. Some Defense organizations have already stepped up with personnel, equipment, and exercises. Development of Extreme Cold Weather gear, and hardening of equipment to cold is on the rise.

    USNORTHCOM should take the lead as a planning and coordination activity with at least a one-star leading that effort for strategic planning with NORDEFCO, Allied coordination of policy and activities, and developing and exercising contingencies and response.

    The US Coast Guard should be the primary operational commander for the region for they will maintain a permanent presence at some level 24/7/365.

    Every DoD service entity must develop, equip, and exercise their response forces, and prepare resources that are maintained, and readily available.

    Congress must fund these activities, and see to their maintenance. Infrastructure improvements, expansion of current bases, and building of new bases are required. The force will grow into the tasking.
    In addition to normal capabilities associated with a Heavy Icebreaker, IMHO the following should be included:
    • Expanded Aviation Support
    o Large Flight Deck
    o Expanded Hangar Space
    • Armament
    o Medium Caliber Main Gun
    o Multiple Crew Service Weapons Locations
    o Armory and MARDET Support
    • Moon-Pool Sea Access
    • Expanded Pier/Ice Level Access

    This was the year to see a plan and start some funding.
    Just my 2ȼ.

    • Stephen

      Absolutely! Sea Services need a clear Plan of Action. This is an opportunity to build a world-class ice breaker(s) & establishing a permanent Arctic presence with our Canadian partners.

      • Curtis Conway

        Although a lesser presence, the South Pole will require attention as well (e.g., 6 Icebreakers). I hope someone figures out the Surface Combatant escort issue, particularly in a ice-bound environment.

        • Stephen

          Hovercraft, weaponized over the ice escorts. Just a thought. Ice is an unforgiving adversary…

          • Curtis Conway

            I sincerely hope thought to a Extreme Cold Weather Ship-to-Shore Connector is planned for, at least for a portion of the production run. At least a ECW Operations Manual should be developed for that contingency.

        • Murray

          What about logistical support? As far as I’m aware no USNS replenishment ships are ice-hardened. An ice-strengthened replenishment ship is currently under construction in South Korea for the Royal New Zealand Navy. When commissioned as HMNZS Aotearoa this will supply fuel and solid stores to New Zealand’s Scott Base and America’s McMurdo Station during the southern summer. It could also support USCG/USN/RNZN operations in Antarctic waters. Whether the New Zealand government would permit it to operate in the Arctic with the USCG/USN during the northern summer a moot point!

          • Curtis Conway

            The Alaskan coast is frozen most of the time. The center or the Polar Vortex shifts in that direction mostly, so it stays cold there. The Russian side thaws each year though, and increasingly so. That being the case, if more US infrastructure development is planned for the Alaskan Coast, and US possessions, then that my very well be prudent. However, we are having a hard time getting the House of Representatives to take this Icebreaker funding seriously, so no relief anytime soon.

          • gryphonskymaster

            This is possible when an heavy ice breaker is available to cut the channel.

    • Hank Hill

      The Coast Guard needs to be put under the Department of the Navy, their budget is atrocious compared to the DoD military branches.

      • Curtis Conway

        The United States Coast Guard operates more vessels of disparate types, over a vastly larger and more diverse workplace, and territory than the US Navy ever dreamed of. They squeeze more value out of a dollar than the US Navy ever thought possible. THAT is why you will not see Littoral Combat Ships in the USCG. They cannot afford to operate them, and the LCS would NEVER survive the Arctic in a worse case scenario.

      • Craig

        Not possible while continuing the Coast Guard law enforcement missions .

    • TomD

      Moon-Pool Sea Access? Interesting idea. Does anyone have that capability today?

      • Curtis Conway

        Many ocean survey ships do. Sure beats having to go work out on deck in bad Arctic weather. Diver, mini-sub access, and overhead crane services are required. It’s where the Baro-Chamber would be located. Medical above, which should be just forward of the helo hangar. Not just an add-on, its part of the basic design. I’m sure the US Coast Guard will put it to good use, and the National Science Foundation certainly will, so I’m sure they would want offices, storage and a lab close. The MARDET will use it eventually I guarantee you.

    • gryphonskymaster

      Great list. Spot on. From your lips to God’s ears. The polar mission is dire straits – pun intended. A shameful series of poor leadership.