Polar Star Heads North to Patrol Maritime Boundary With Russia

polar star
Polar Star heads out of the Puget Sound, bound northwards, December 4 (USCG)

Published Dec 7, 2020 12:22 AM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Polar Star got under way from Seattle on Friday, bound for her annual winter deployment. Instead of heading to Antarctica, where she goes every year, she is making way for the Arctic - reflecting a heightened need for presence operations in the Bering Sea.

Polar Star is poised to head into the cold, dark Arctic winter to carry out a historic mission,” said Capt. Bill Woitrya, the cutter’s commanding officer. “The ship is ready, and the crew is enthusiastic to embark on this adventure. We will defend U.S. interests in the region, and continue to hone our proficiency to operate in such a harsh, remote environment.”

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the 44-year-old Polar Star is being dispatched northwards to "project power and support national security objectives throughout Alaskan waters and into the Arctic, including along the Maritime Boundary Line between the United States and Russia." 

Russian Navy assets have been drawing attention in the Bering Sea in recent months. A massive exercise at the end of August involved 50 Russian vessels in the Bering, according to Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov, the head of the Russian Navy. During the maneuvers, Russian personnel asked American fishing vessels to leave an area within the American EEZ due to risk from submarine maneuvers and missile live-fire exercises, several fishermen told The New York Times.  

The Polar Star normally departs Seattle each December for Antarctica, where she supports Operation Deep Freeze, the annual mission to resupply the United States’ Antarctic research stations. This year’s maritime resupply at McMurdo Station was canceled due to COVID safety precautions, and a smaller resupply effort will be conducted by aircraft. The Coast Guard expects that Polar Star will resume her normal role next year. 

On her voyage north, Polar Star will be filling in for the cutter Healy, which suffered an electrical fire in her starboard propulsion motor in August. The motor was recently replaced in drydock, but Healy will likely not be ready to return to the Arctic until next year. 

“The Arctic is no longer an emerging frontier, but is instead a region of growing national importance,” said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area. “The Coast Guard is committed to protecting U.S. sovereignty and working with our partners to uphold a safe, secure, and rules-based Arctic.”

The Polar Star is in her fourth decade in service, and her Cold War-era systems are challenging to maintain. On previous voyages, her crew has overcome serious mechanical casualties in order to keep her running, and she requires a multi-month refurbishment every year after her return from Antarctica. 

To expand its icebreaking capacity, the Coast Guard has awarded a contract to shipbuilder VT Halter Marine for the design and construction of a new Polar Security Cutter, a heavy icebreaker built to USCG specifications. The contract has options for two more, and the service aims to have a fleet of six (with a mix of medium and heavy icebreaking capability).