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

The following is the Aug. 3, 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

  • Lawrence Trevethan

    One problem is that USCG terminology is misleading. By world standards, Polar Star and Polar Sea are medium icebreakers. Otherwise, what are those ships built by Finland or Russia to be called? Super Icebreakers perhaps? There is a real difference between the sizes. Size matters depending on the barrier that needs to be breached. The good news is that, at least in the past, when it matters on our side of the Bering Sea, we have had Russian cooperation. In future, with more ships entering the Arctic and operating perhaps all the way across North America, we may well need to provide our own solutions. Or perhaps Canada ought to??? It is nominally their area.

    • Beomoose

      Size doesn’t determine the icebreaking class, else HEALY would be a Heavy, it’s about icebreaking capability. The Polar twins “look” small, but their gas turbines give them Heavy class icebreaking capability right up there with the Finns.

      • Kevin

        Actually the Polar Class can put out about 70MW to the shafts, on par with the Russian Nuclear breakers, and well in excess of the Finns. That said, the Finish breakers are designed to operate in the Baltic Sea not in multiyear arctic ice up to 24′ thick, and are more than up to the task.

    • Kevin Dougherty

      The Polar Class breakers have roughly the same shaft horsepower as the Russian nuclear breakers, and are more powerful than the Finnish breakers.At the time they were built they were the most powerful and technologically advanced in the world. In some aspects their capacity still outclasses the Russians, for example, the Russian breakers are limited to the Arctic region by their lack of cooling capacity.

      • Lawrence Trevethan

        My comments relied on evaluations in reference books. Still – I wonder WHY one might need icebreakers somewhere OTHER than in the Arctic region? Surely the Russian “limitation” is not meaningful, especially since Russia is the Premier Arctic nation. As your comments make clear, technology evolves and these ships have not been modernized in a long time. I like them – and lament we don’t have more of them. I think the need for such ships is growing because traffic in the Arctic is growing.

        • Secundius

          Most of Russia’s Most Northern Cities don’t have a Road System to the Rest of the Country. Much less a Railroad System. So that leaves tow alternatives “Air or Sea”, Sea being the Cheaper of the Two. It took nearly 8-months to construct the Alaskan Highway in 1942, but that’s because the construction started from both ends. And there was an Active War going on. Try that in Russia, with No War going on…

        • Kevin

          How about the Antarctic Ocean? Our Research stations there are resupplied by sea, that will not happen without ice breakers. Also we need competent icebreakers to maintain the waterways in winter, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. Admittedly smaller ones, most people do not realize that many of our “black hulls” — Buoy Tenders, Tugs etc, are fitted with ice hulls to keep those critical routes open. Our icebreakers are not limited to just ice breaking, but also (normally) perform other missions. For instance, the Healy just returned from a fisheries patrol. Last but not least, we do not have shipyards in Arctic regions.

          • Lawrence Trevethan

            Generally, we abandon Antarctica during the long, dark Winter season. No need to resupply then. And most logistics is done by air (the same as is the case in rural Alaska – often the very same aircraft – the C-130). For a nice sense of how things are done (visually as well as logistically) I recommend watching Kate Bekinsale’s 2009 movie “Whiteout.” It gets numbers of geographic, meteorological, medical, scientific, logistics and law enforcement concepts right (compared to the norms for Hollywood anyway). Not least of these is that we don’t try to winter over. Historically, we first went using US Navy ships, including aircraft carriers using C-47s fitted with ski’s. Not icebreakers.

          • Kevin

            Sorry but three of five bases operated by the US are year around bases where we do indeed winter over. While many supplies are indeed moved by transport aircraft, (typically USAF), heavier and bulkier items are still transported by Military Sealift Command in support of the United States Antarctic Program and the National Science Foundation. The Polar Star travels south every antarctic spring to open the passage to McMurdo Sound. Currently it is in the yards preparing for that trip. When you only have one ship that is past it’s intended service life, and was never intended to see yearly use in such a rough environment, maintenance gets rather intense.

            The USCG Icebreakers have always escorted the thinner skinned USN ships to and from Antarctica since Operation High Jump in 1946 which established Little America. It did include an Aircraft Carrier and two seaplane tenders. If I remember rightly, the Aircraft Carrier never actually entered the Ice Pack but stayed about 640 miles off shore. Two of the Wind Class breakers, the USCGC Eastwind and the USS Burton Island accompanied the task force.

            The next year the USS Edisto accompanied the Burton Island, Operation Deep freeze has run every year since 1955, and has been 100% USCG Ice Breakers since the USN turned over all Ice Operations to the USCG in the mid 60s. Don’t trust movies for your information.

  • Curtis Conway

    I hope they don’t low ball propulsion capability to save cost, and we end up getting an underpowered pig of a Icebreaker. I can see McNamara all over again.

    “…perhaps also model test tank results that have substantially reduced the required power of the new icebreakers’ propulsion plant.”

  • Peter

    I think and I am hoping that after 30 years of service with the Polar Star, the USCG should know pretty much what they and scientists want with a new heavy icebreaker. All USCG has to
    do is design it and build it.

    This would include any armaments, lab spaces, improvements, propulsion and engineering, performance, etc. I’m just assuming that the brainstorming sessions for these are over.

    • Dave_TX

      Make that 40 years, not 30 years.

      • Kevin Dougherty

        Let us not forget that the CG has been operating in Arctic regions since 1884, including such notable ships as the Cutters Bear, Northland, not to mention the Wind Class breakers, the first true US icebreakers which served faithfully from 1944 to the late 70’s. It could be argued that one served until 2006, as the CGC Macinaw (WAGB-83) was a Wind Class design with a hull modified to make her more suitable for Great Lakes operations which required a shallower draft.

        Altogether, that gives the CG well over 100 years of experience in ice operations.

        • Secundius

          As I recall “Bear” started out as a Sail/Steam powered Sealer, in the early 1870’s. And bought by the US Government sometime in the mid 1880’s, because of were 6-inch thick hull. But she was never a Purpose Built “Ice Cutter”…

          • Dave_TX

            Procurement in terms of specifications was a lot more casual 140 years ago.

          • Secundius

            Uhhh Huhhh! And exactly how does the Casual procurement of 1978 equate with 1885…

          • Dave_TX

            I meant to type 140, not 40. Sorry.

          • Kevin

            Correct, and if you read my whole post, I point out the Wind Class we’re the first purpose built breakers. The Northland did pretty good, but she like the Bear were ice capable. When the Northwind joined her on the Greenland patrols in WWII, she could and did run circles around the Northland.

          • Secundius

            As I recall the “Northwind’s” were parcelle out to the Soviet Union in WWII, under the Lend Lease Act of March 1940…

          • Kevin

            Sorta, kinda. The first of the class was originally to be the USS Northwind, but it’s name was changed to the Staten Island and was sent to Russia along with Southwind and Westwind. The USCGC Eastwind and the USCGC Northwind participated in the Greenland patrols during WWII. (A good book to read on this is “Ice is Where you Find It” by Captain Thomas CO of the Northland and 1st CO of the Northwind.) In all 8 Wind Class breakers were built. One was built in Quebec for Canada and the other seven served in the Coast Guard until decommissioned between 1972 and 1989 depending on the cutter.

    • Kevin

      Actually specifications have been drawn up, CG engineers have been working on this for years while Congress kept putting off funding. A RFP was issued for advanced design and procurement for FY2019. I fear that it will be too little, too late, the Star is overworked, and the Sea would take tens of millions to putt back in service. As it stands when the Star is in port, it’s in the yard as they work frantically to extend it’s life.

  • Secundius

    I’ll believe it, when I “Actually” see it. Until then, it’s just US Congressional BS…

  • Donald Carey

    If ever there was a surface ship class that would benefit from nuclear power, its heavy icebreakers. The fact the designs currently being considered run on fossil fuel is a short-sighted disgrace.

    • Kevin

      Nuclear Power in a surface ship is not as advantageous as it looks. The Navy built several Cruisers that were so powered, they never built any more as the additional cost in construction and decommissioning, as well as the additional crew needed more than outweighed the benefits. There are significant advantages in submarines (like the ability to stay submerged almost indefinitely), and carriers, (not having to carry all that bunker fuel lets them carry a lot more aircraft fuel and munitions). The Coast Guard has neither the budget, the manpower, or the expertise for a nuclear powered ship.

      • Donald Carey

        When the ship is somewhere other types of ships such as tankers can’t go, not having to refuel could be VERY nice. Plus, these ships should last 50 years, the price and availability of fossil fuel years from now (not to mention the political cost of the carbon footprint), may turn nuclear power into a bargain. Your observations about budget, manpower and expertise are specious. The Coast Guard can provide the crew, which with modern reactors may not be much larger, if any, and Navy can train them. As for cost, I have already pointed out the differential may be far less than it is today.

  • Kim Chul Soo

    The MSM tells me the polar ice caps are melting. If this is true, why do we need icebreakers?

  • Truthful James

    We do need a Coast Guard. The question arises: what should its mission be Should it be to clear the Arctic Ocean of ice conditions blocking commercial traffic. I suggest that these are missions which should be paid for by the shipping companies and the country(s) which provide this service. Otherwise it just becomes a subsidy about which we do not have proper pricing. At the southern end of the world we have the Antarctica. The similar logic applies.

    One might use the following analogy We do have missions assigned to Coast Guard in temperate and tropical waters. These are areas of first concern for our homeland. Even worse, the U.S. Navy with its emphasis of CVN and SSN/BN/GN has failed to build sufficient DD sized combatants including those capable of interdicting enemy missiles after they rise from their launch pads.

    • Kevin

      One of the primary statutory missions of the Coast Guard IS Ice Operations. The CG Heavy Icebreakers primarily provide escort for USN and contracted supply ships to support US research facilities in Antarctica, and scientific research in the Arctic. For the most part the commercial side of things is taken care of by a fleet of dual purpose buoy tenders, tugs etc. designed to break river, harbor and lake ice, and one heavy Great Lakes breaker (the Mackinaw), who shares the heave breaking duties with the Canadian CG vessels.