US Coast Guard Makes Progress on Funding Icebreaker Fleet

USCGC Polar Star cuts through the ice in the Ross Sea during Operation Deep Freeze, January 2018. (Photo credit: Still image from USCG video by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen)

The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has released a request for proposal (RFP) with matching funding to acquire a new heavy icebreaker vessel intended to be the first of a six-ship installment and the beginning of a robust U.S. icebreaker fleet. Announcing the proposal at the Mar. 1, 2018 State of the Coast Guard address, Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft said it is the first step in protecting the “fourth coast” of the U.S.—the Arctic.

USCG Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft, Mar. 1, 2018. (Photo credit: Amelia Jaycen)

The USCG is “a service that punches above its weight class, it’s time we were budgeted accordingly,” Zukunft said. “This is our highest priority. We have no self-rescue capability whatsoever for our only icebreaker.”

He cited the “mounting Russian footprint” in the Arctic and called for the need for “another tool besides submarines” to maintain U.S. security in the High North latitudes: “The only thing we have in our inventory to operate up there in an ice environment would be these icebreakers.”

The U.S.’s only heavy icebreaker currently in service, Polar Star, is now heading home from Antarctica after supporting a U.S. National Science Foundation mission by breaking a path in the ice to allow research ships to reach the continent, an annual Antarctic trip known as Operation Deep Freeze. While working in the Ross Sea, the icebreaker suffered flooding in its engine room after a shaft seal failure and one of the cutter’s three main gas turbines failed. The crew was able to make repairs and complete the mission with no injuries, cutting the remainder of the ice path without the use of its third turbine.

An Aging Fleet

Polar Star was commissioned in 1976 and recently underwent a three-year retrofit to return to the water in 2013. Its sister ship, Polar Sea, was decommissioned in 2011 and has since been used for parts for Polar Star. The USCG website says it is evaluating options for reactivating Polar Sea. The USCG has one medium icebreaker in service, USCGC Healy, which was commissioned in 2000 and operates mainly in the Arctic. While Healy has performed various ice-breaking assists for the Navy and can cut through ice up to 8-ft. thick, the thicker ice of the Antarctic presents a challenge.

USCGC Healy (Photo credit: USCG)

The USCG has a fleet of more than 30 ships and some of them are 73 years old, Zukunft said: “The 2019 budget gets us out of the starting blocks to build that fleet.” He said he is optimistic the acquisition packet for the new icebreaker will come in under $1 billion.

Under the Trump administration’s recently released budget proposal for 2019, USCG would get $750 million to award a contract for detail design and construction of new polar icebreakers. The U.S. icebreaker fleet will be developed on an accelerated timeline, and the contract award will certainly consider the time factor: the first icebreaker needs to be in the water by 2023, the latest date Polar Star is expected to remain active.

While the fleet is scheduled to initially include three medium and three heavy icebreakers, those may only be a first installment in a fleet that grows in size in the future. To develop the icebreaker’s specifications, $25 million has already been awarded to vendors to do ice study modeling.

USCGC Polar Star in McMurdo Sound on Jan. 13, 2018 (Photo credit: USCG photo by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen)

The U.S. icebreaker will have military-grade weapons capabilities and cutting-edge technologies for unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles. The USCG also needs to expand its satellite bandwidth to cover the Arctic latitudes, Zukunft said, because beyond 78˚ N, most of the satellites used by USCG are on the horizon, making communication difficult. The new icebreaker is also intended to be modular so that new technologies can be added later.

“We need to think creatively in terms of the future of autonomous vehicles. There might be autonomous ships in the life cycle of this ship.” he said. “We need to be thinking outside of the box. The ships we acquire today will be in service 30 to 40 years from now, and it’s going to be a completely different world from when we acquired them.”

A Trending Coast Guard Brand

In his State of the Coast Guard speech, Zukunft also commented that while the USCG brand is “trending way up” after heroism in assisting Hurricane Harvey victims, it also faces an identity crisis as plenty of stakeholders, citizens and government leaders are still unaware that USCG is a branch of the U.S. military that is involved in assisting Navy and other U.S. government missions, enforcing illegal fishing bans and intercepting transnational criminal organizations.

U.S. Coast Guard members aboard USCGC Healy tend to a fuel hose during flight operations in the Arctic Sept. 11, 2017. (Photo credit: USCG photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Amanda Norcross)

In the five nights prior to his State of the Coast Guard address, Zukunft said a dozen USCG ships operating in the Eastern Pacific confiscated a total of 10 million tons of cocaine in less than one week. But still, he said, “We don’t have enough [resources]. The U.S. cannot do this alone.”

Around Apr. 1, the USCG will launch its first combined counter-drug operation in cooperation with the navies of Mexico and Colombia. It will also deliver two patrol boats to Costa Rica this spring to help combat Honduras-bound illegal drug shipments that have rerouted as Honduras has gained intelligence.

In 2019, the USCG will deploy two national security cutters to the Asia-Pacific region where it conducts an annual combined operation to enforce illegal fishing regulations in the far western Pacific Ocean. Whether the USCG will assist with enforcing any sanctions related to North Korea is a policy issue that remains to be decided, Zukunft said.

“I want to work closely with some of these coast guards,” he said, to “de-escalate some of the tensions and use coast guards as a diplomatic tool rather than a weapon.”

Zukunft completes his four-year term as USCG commandant this year.

“Four years ago I would have said [the icebreaker] is a bridge too far, now it’s a reality,” he said. 

—Amelia Jaycen

USCGC Polar Star cuts through the ice in the Ross Sea. (Photo credit: Still image from video by USCG Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen)

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