One of the Coast Guard’s duties is to patrol the freezing cold waters off the northernmost coast of our United States. And they can’t do it in shoddy boats. Two of the three USCG polar icebreakers – the Polar Star and Polar Sea – have exceeded their intended 30-year service lives. And on the service’s current schedule, the first replacement ship might not enter service for another decade.Coast Guard estimates put the cost of a new icebreaker at $800 million to $925 million (in 2008 dollars), and that the alternative of extending service on the Polar Star and Sea for 25 years could cost around $400 million each.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) put out a report in mid-July that analyzed the challenges the Coast Guard is facing with this issue. Modernization challenges include the numbers and capabilities of future polar icebreaking ships, whether to provide the USCG their ships through service life extension programs or new construction, and even whether those ships should be nuclear powered. There is also question as to whether the new ships should be funded in the USCG budget or some other part of the federal budget, like through DOD or the National Science Foundation. Congress has several choices regarding icebreaker modernization, according to the CRS report. Among them: approve the Coast Guard’s current plan, direct the Coast Guard to include the option of nuclear power in studies on requirements for future icebreakers, accelerate procurement of new icebreakers relative to the Coast Guard’s current plan or direct the Coast Guard to reactivate the Polar Star (which has been, well, on ice, since July 1, 2006).
There is reason for new attention being directed to icebreakers. There is increased activity in our polar regions because of melting Arctic ice, debates are emerging over Arctic sovereignty and concerns exist not only over the U.S.’s shipbuilding industrial base but also over the Coast Guard’s ability to perform all of the missions with which it’s been tasked.
Right now the only icebreaker functioning is the Healy, which was commissioned in August 2000. It is 420 feet long (slightly larger than the Polar Star and Sea) and displaces about 16,200 tons. It has less icebreaking capability than its sister ships, but it’s more capable of supporting scientific research, for which it’s primarily used.
Now it’s up to Congress to decide how many icebreakers the Coast Guard will need in the future. Is two the right number? Three? More? Should they be strong enough to cut through 6 feet or more of ice (like Russian ships)? And should they have more or less scientific research functionality than Healy?
In January, I wrote about how the Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Thad Allen, made his case for establishing a coherent U.S. policy in the Arctic in the face of melting ice and Russian encroachment on the territory during a Jan. 16 speech. Whether one subscribes to the premise of global warming or not is "irrelevant to me because I have water where I didn't before," Allen told a group at the national Surface Navy Association symposium in Arlington, Va. His Coast Guard units are deploying deeper into the Arctic and farther away from operational bases, he added. Allen’s goal for 2008 was to develop a baseline for how a Coast Guard presence can be sustained in the Arctic.
He also spoke about the U.S. icebreaker fleet. "A [recent] National Academy of Sciences report said we need three," Allen said. "We have three... but compared to our Arctic neighbors with 20 icebreaking vessels, we're thin in ranks." Allen added he will have to frame a national policy discussion on U.S. sovereignty and presence in the Arctic and determine whether that provides a basis for future icebreakers.