The Coast Guard will not pursue nuclear-powered icebreakers, despite previous White House requests that the service assess the possibility, its top officer said Wednesday.
Speaking at the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium, Coast Guard commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said the service and the Navy discuss what kind of icebreaking capability the sea services require, but that a nuclear-powered icebreaker is not possible for the U.S.
“We’ve moved off the nuclear-powered breaker. That capability – the ability to operate that in the Coast Guard – that just doesn’t exist nor can we build out to that with all the demands on our plate,” Schultz said.
Schultz’s comments come after the White House in a memo last year directed the Coast Guard and other government agencies to reexamine plans for the Polar Security Cutter fleet, even though the service in 2019 issued an award for the first ship in the class.
“This assessment shall also evaluate defensive armament adequate to defend against threats by near-peer competitors and the potential for nuclear-powered propulsion,” the memo read.
The call from the Trump administration to look at the potential for building nuclear-powered icebreakers coincided with the Pentagon’s ongoing shift to a National Defense Strategy that emphasizes high-end conflict with nations like Russia and China.
Navy officials in recent years have been sounding the alarm on the increasing Russian and Chinese presence in Arctic waters. Russia has a nuclear-powered icebreaker that sailed to the Arctic last year, CBS News reported in September. Reports suggest China may be planning to build one for its own fleet.
Schultz said he is concentrating on what he refers to as the “six-three-one strategy” for the icebreakers.
“Six-three-one was we need a minimum of six icebreakers. Within that six, three need to be heavy, or Polar Security Cutters as we [call] them. And we need one now,” he said.
Construction on the first Polar Security Cutter is slated to start this year. While the Polar Security Cutters are the heavy icebreakers, Schultz said the Coast Guard is working on requirements for its medium icebreakers, which the service is calling the Arctic Security Cutters.
“[A]t the behest of the national security apparatus, they said, ‘what would the real needs of the nation be at the high latitudes if you had a chance to sort of spend that out in a resource unconstrained model, commandant?’” Schultz said.
“And what we really looked at is potentially six Polar Security Cutters and maybe three Arctic Security Cutters – a fleet of nine US-flagged icebreakers. In the interim here, we’re looking at some leasing options as a bridging strategy, not to be in lieu of, but additive and to close some gaps.”
Asked about reinforcing hulls on other ships like the Offshore Patrol Cutters, Schultz said it’s a possibility, but for now he is concentrating on the icebreakers the service is building.
“Could there be a longer . . . conversation about ice reinforced OPCs towards the end of that production line? Yeah, maybe so,” Schultz said. “But I would tell you I am crystal clear-eyed focused on PSCs, Arctic Security Cutters next and then there might be some trade space. But I think it’s down the road about ice-reinforced hulls on medium and high-endurance cutters.”