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Can U.S. lawmakers stomach the cost of new icebreakers?

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic
Coast Guard photo

The U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, part of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, held a hearing earlier this month on U.S. Coast Guard operations in the Arctic. The chief topic of concern was icebreakers. As I reported back in February, the U.S. will be without heavy icebreakers for at least two years.

The USCG's District Seventeen covers all of Alaska. It is divided into two sectors, Juneau and Anchorage. The USCG has an air station in Kodiak and Sitka, both in southern Alaska, where operations are concentrated. The USCG helps to safeguard the numerous fishermen in the seas, perform search and rescue operations, and protect sensitive maritime areas like sea lion rookeries.

This year, they will also be carrying out an operation in anticipation of eventual drilling in the Chukchi Sea so that they can be better prepared. The USCG, however, does not have any permanent bases, communications infrastructure, or other facilities necessary to allow for extended operations in the Arctic.

The U.S. currently only has one operational icebreaker, a medium icebreaker called the USCGC Healy. Though it can cut through ice up to 4.5 feet thick at three knots, it cannot carry out unassisted polar icebreaker operations. Healy is scheduled to be in service until 2030.

Icebreakers sidelined

The two heavy icebreakers that are currently sidelined, the Polar Star and Polar Sea, can break through six feet of ice at three knots. They constitute the "world's most powerful non-nuclear-powered icebreakers." This does not mean much in a world where Russia has several nuclear-powered icebreakers that can cut through Arctic ice, often six to nine feet thick in the central part of the ocean, at three knots. China is also building a new icebreaker to launch in 2014, which will have a displacement of 8,000 tons (half the size of Healy).

This will be the country's second icebreaker, as it purchased the Xue Long from the Ukraine in 1993. The Xue Long, though massive at 21,250 tons, is not especially powerful, as it can cut through a little under four feet of ice at two knots.

The Polar Star and Polar Sea's main missions include supporting National Science Foundation research in Antarctica. However, they have not assisted in a mission to Antarctica since 2007. Since then, the NSF has paid $8 million annually to Russia and Sweden for use of their icebreakers. This situation draws a parallel to the country's lack of space shuttles, which has caused it to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to reach the International Space Station.

This year, the U.S. was counting on Sweden's icebreaker Oden for its annual Antarctic breakout, but Stockholm decided that it needed to keep the ship at home to patrol sea lanes. Without any active icebreakers, not only does the U.S. have to rely on a tight global supply. Coast Guard members' skills at operating icebreakers grow rustier as they lose at-sea time and hands-on training, too.

Congress decommissioned the Polar Sea in October 2011, and equipment is being transferred from the ship to the Polar Star to assist in its reactivation. The Polar Sea was rehabilitated in 2006, but four years later, it experienced catastrophic engine problems. To fix the Polar Star, Congress has appropriated $60 million. Yet it is uncertain how much longer she will last even after the repairs are completed in Seattle in December 2012. The ship may have only another seven to 10 years in her, which could leave the U.S. without any operational heavy icebreaker yet again in less than a decade.

But another complicating factor is HR 2838, the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2011, which the House has passed. This bill would decommission the Polar Star within three years.

As Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Washington) noted, "I may not know the precise definition of the word, "irony", but scheduling a hearing to discuss Coast Guard capabilities in the Arctic less than three weeks after the House passed legislation that would decommission the Coast Guard's two heavy icebreakers, sure seems ironic to me."

The White House also issued a formal statement opposing HR 2838, as the bill would "effectively reduce the vessel's service life to two years and create a significant gap in the Nation's icebreaking capacity."

Coast Guard admiral expresses concern

During his testimony before the subcommittee, Coast Guard Admiral Robert J. Papp also expressed his concern about taking the Polar Star out of service. Interestingly, though, he also noted that the National Security Cutter Program is essential to the USCG's role in the Last Frontier.

Papp stated, "The National Security Cutter is more important to me to carrying out Coast Guard missions in Alaska -- but we still need new icebreakers as well. In sum, it is my judgment and advice to you that Polar Star must be kept as part of the heavy icebreaker bridging strategy for the next five to 10 years, and that the NSC shipbuilding program momentum must be maintained." (National Security Cutters are a class of ship. This summer, the first NSC carried out a patrol in Alaska. The Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf took part in Operation Northern Edge, demonstrating that cutters can be useful in northern waters.)

The fiscal year 2012 budget would allow for one heavy icebreaker and one medium icebreaker, which the Department of Homeland Security says "will allow the Coast Guard to meet operational requirements." Yet the USCG's High Latitude Region Mission Analysis Report, submitted to Congress in July 2011, states that the services needs four heavy icebreakers and two medium ones to fulfill both its statutory missions and the Naval Operations Concept 2010 (NOC-2010). In a small footnote (#30), the concept states, "The current Icebreaker demand requires a 1.0 presence in the Arctic and 1.0 in the Antarctic."

The researchers behind the behind High Latitude report designed the "Cutter Capacity Demand Tool," a mathematical model that determines the number of icebreakers required. The researchers came up with the following findings:

  1. USCG needs three heavy and three medium icebreakers to meet its statutory missions.
  2. USCG needs six heavy and four medium to meet both its statutory missions and the "continuous presence requirements" of NOC-10.
  3. A compromise solution requiring only four heavy icebreakers and two medium ones could be found by having multiple crews on all icebreakers, with two home-ported in the Southern Hemisphere instead of Seattle, where the icebreakers are normally based.

In the Arctic, the Coast Guard's icebreaker deficit could affect four out of the 11 missions it has: Defense Readiness, Ice Operations, Marine Environmental Protection, and Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security.

Plans for future icebreakers

The USCG estimates it will take eight to 10 years to design and build a new icebreaker. Since the Polar Sea will only last for approximately that time, at most, many advocate that the U.S. should start designing a new icebreaker immediately.

The USCG presented findings of an independent third-party regarding icebreakers to Congress on Nov. 1. It will cost $859 million to construct a new polar class icebreaker and $1.2 billion to reconstruct the Polar Sea or Polar Star from scratch to the current standard for heavy icebreakers. These current USCG budget cannot fund these projects, so funding from other agencies will be necessary.

However, David Whitcomb, Chief Operating Officer of Vigor Industrial, the company repairing the Polar Star, testified this month on behalf of the Shipbuilders' Council of America that the engine of the mothballed Polar Sea could be fixed for as little as $11 million. This would add another seven to 10 years to the ship's lifespan.

Even if it is fixed soon, this still puts the U.S. in the same time crunch eventually, where by as soon as 2018 the U.S. could again be without icebreakers, and this time for a decade while a new one is designed. China was able to simply purchase an icebreaker from the Ukraine. While the U.S. is content to lease icebreakers from other countries, it does not seem like an actual purchase of maritime or military equipment from another country would go over as well in Washington.

During his testimony, Mead Treadwell, lieutenant governor of Alaska, said, that the country needs to add new polar-class icebreakers to its fleet, as "the need is more urgent than ever." With historic changes in global shipping patterns on the Arctic's doorstep, the USCG will need to be capable of patrolling American waters and making sure that the ships passing through adhere to standards and regulations. Treadwell pointed out the Bering Strait as a gateway to the Arctic where the U.S. also needs legal measures to "protect shores from unregulated itinerary vessels carrying hazardous vessels." This cannot be done without a heavy icebreaker. He criticized HR 3113, introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), which would have the U.S. lease icebreakers instead of keeping some permanently in its fleet.

"We could miss the boat as others reap huge economic benefits from shipping groups," Treadwell lamented. "We're going to miss the historic, game-changing opportunities of the Arctic while watching other nations advance."

Furthermore, as mentioned before, it's not even always possible to lease heavy icebreakers at will. Sweden called the Oden home, breaking its commitment to the U.S. Instead, the NSF will reportedly try to lease the Canadian-built icebreaker, Vladimir Ignatyuk, from the Murmansk Shipping Co. for one year to break out Antarctica and create the yearly shipping channel to McMurdo Station.

The 3,000 residents of Nome, meanwhile, are hoping that a leased Russian ice-class tanker that normally delivers oil and gas to communities in Russia's Far East may be able to break through ice encasing the town at the end of the Iditarod Trail to deliver fuel, including natural gas, petroleum, and diesel, from South Korea. They should know this week.

Stormy conditions earlier this year prevented a more practical summertime delivery. While making sure that Nome has affordable gas is not exactly a responsibility of the U.S. government, if an American icebreaker was present in western Alaskan waters, the ice could have been broken through, allowing the ship to make delivery.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.