At a panel hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies on Wednesday, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft announced new discussions regarding the construction of two new icebreakers.
The discussions, to be held in March, will bring together potential bidders for the vessels' construction with Coast Guard authorities. Cost estimates for the two newbuilds run in the range of $1 billion each.
Shipbuilders reportedly interested in the project include American yards Huntington Ingalls and General Dynamics, among others. But some defense analysts suggest that the U.S. no longer possesses the expertise to build the complicated vessel type and would be better served to contract with an allied nation for the construction – or at minimum engage with a foreign yard for purposes of technology transfer.
The Coast Guard has been calling for new vessels to replace its 40-year-old Polar Star and Polar Sea heavy icebreakers for many years.
The Polar Star is presently the only active status American icebreaker. For comparison, Russia operates over 40, with a dozen more ordered, including several of a new class of nuclear-powered ships.
The Star's sister ship Polar Sea is in inactive status at berth in Seattle. She was laid up indefinitely after a casualty in 2010 involving catastrophic failure of five of six main engines, and narrowly survived proposed scrapping in 2012. The Coast Guard conducted a business case assessment for her reactivation in 2013 and determined a cost of $100 million for refurbishment sufficient for 7-10 years of additional service.
Admiral Zukunft said in September that the Coast Guard was conducting a second assessment of the feasibility of her reactivation for a final decision next year. But, he said, “This is a ship that's been laid up now for five years, parts were cannibalized in order to get the Polar Star running [in a 2012 refit], it hasn't had a crew on it for that same amount of time as well. So it's like an old car that's been laid up without an engine in it, an engine that's been stripped of its parts. . . . You step back and say, well if it was a car, you should've bought a new car instead.”
“The other part to look at with these old icebreakers is if they don't meet today's MARPOL code for environmental compliance,” he added. “If we are setting the . . . ship-going standards to operate in the Arctic under that polar code, then by golly we ought to be in compliance as well and not in violation."