U.S. Coast Guard Gives Update on Icebreaker Plan

Polar Star (file image courtesy USCG)

By MarEx 2016-06-14 21:12:20

In a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation on Tuesday, chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) asked U.S. Coast Guard vice commandant Adm. Charles D. Michel pointed questions over the acquisition of replacement heavy ice breakers – and asked whether having more than one working vessel of the class is necessary. 

The Senate is planning to pass $1 billion for a new heavy icebreaker, Hunter said, confirming a previous suggestion by Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi and chair of the Senate Defense Appropriations subcommittee. "You'll have the authority to do block buys, multi-year procurement, you'll have the ability to buy two to three icebreakers if you wanted to at one time," Hunter said, and asked whether the USCG expected to need more than one vessel of the class in the next 25 years. Adm. Michel answered in the affirmative: "The High Latitude Study says three heavy polar icebreakers is what the Coast Guard's requirement is," he said, adding that the expected senate proposal is for only one vessel. Adm. Michel stressed that a heavy icebreaking capability was required for strategic, year-round access to ice-covered regions, and that the nation’s sole working icebreaker (the Polar Star) spends about half the year in shipyard for repairs.

Hunter expressed skepticism over whether the service needed more icebreaking capability than it presently has, then moved on to press Adm. Michel on how the USCG planned to cover any gaps between the end of the Star's service life and the expected delivery date for a newbuild. "[Polar Star] has another 5-7 years left of life unless we do [a refit]," Adm. Michel said, putting the ship's end of service a few years short of her replacement. To cover the intervening period, he said that the USCG is examining a number of alternatives, including refurbishing her sister ship Polar Sea (an option about which Coast Guard leadership has expressed strong reservations) or carrying out a "rolling recapitalization" of the Star.

A Coast Guard business case study for refitting the long-inactive Sea is due on July 24 – but whatever the findings, the Sea and the Star are the only two options left on the table until a replacement is built, said Adm. Michel: "We've looked out there for vessels to lease for heavy icebreaking capability, there's nothing out there on Planet Earth that you can lease in the heavy icebreaking area.”

Adm. Michel also answered the committee’s questions regarding long lead funding for a tenth National Security Cutter (NSC), an appropriation which passed Senator Cochran’s subcommittee last month; the senator has noted that the vessel would be built in his district. The Coast Guard has requested eight of the vessels and a ninth unrequested ship was funded by Congress last year, at Sen. Cochran’s initiative. Adm. Michel noted that while the class is very capable and useful, the Coast Guard has published its funding priorities and a tenth $640 million NSC is not among them. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said in a hearing in March that a tenth vessel was not needed and could draw resources from other programs.