USCG Receives Authorization for New Great Lakes Heavy Icebreaker

heavy icebreaker for Great Lakes
Bill calls for a new cutter with the same capabilities as the Mackinaw (USCG photo)

Published Dec 26, 2022 3:56 PM by The Maritime Executive

Contained within the massive new National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 is the start of a program to add a new heavy icebreaker for the U.S. Coast Guard to operate on the Great Lakes. The vessel would increase the Coast Guard’s capacity and supplement an aging fleet that plays a vital role in the commercial trade on the Great Lakes.

President Biden signed the $858 billion Defense Authorization Act on December 23. Contained within the bill was the Great Lakes Winter Commerce Act which provides for the new icebreaker and enhances the definition of the U.S. Coast Guard’s role in the icebreaking operations on the Great Lakes. 

The bill authorizes $350 million for a new Great Lakes icebreaker while also updating the standards for how the USCG measures successful icebreaking. According to the bill’s sponsors, Senator Tammy Baldwin and Representative Mike Gallagher, it will allow USCG to size its icebreaker fleet to handle the vast majority of ice seasons while limiting excess capacity. It also clarifies elements of an 86-year old Executive Order which the sponsors said ensures that the Coast Guard's mission is operating under the "reasonable demands of commerce" for 2022, not 1936.

The bill was originally introduced in February 2020 after insufficient icebreaking in the 2018-2019 winter season caused cargo ships to be stuck in port for days at a time. The Lakes Carrier Association estimated that nearly $1 billion in revenue was lost by Great Lakes businesses due to the insufficient capacity for icebreaking on the lakes. U.S. flagged vessels on the Great Lakes shipped more than 81 million tons of cargo last year.

The Duluth Seaway Port Authority was one of the many organizations that endorsed the bill. Its executives pointed out the critical need for more icebreaking capacity noting that when this year’s shipping season opened, the USCG did not have a cutter available making for a difficult start to the authority’s season.

The bill specifically calls for a new icebreaker that is at least as capable as the USCG Mackinaw. That vessel, which was built in 2006, is 240 feet long with a total complement of 55 people including nine officers and five chief petty officers. It is capable of handling level ice up to 32 inches in thickness at speeds up to 3 knots. It has a ramming capability of up to 10 feet of refrozen brash ice.

Currently, the USCG reports it has six icebreakers operating on the Great Lakes. However, the fleet is aging with an average age of nearly 40 years. The new vessel however could be a decade away according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. It is pointed out that the project has not yet begun and will require early stage designs, development of the full blueprints, and ultimately bidding to U.S. shipyards. 

The USCG is calling for the new heavy icebreaker noting that it also needed a layer of redundancy in its operations. They point out that is something happens to the Mackinaw they would not have another vessel with the same capabilities available in the region.