Heavy Icebreakers: A National Security Imperative

The Polar Sea at the Vigor Industrial yard (Paul Benecki / MarEx)

Published Feb 14, 2017 9:33 PM by U.S. Coast Guard News

[By Lieutenant Stephanie Young]

Last week, the Coast Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star cleared a channel through a 70-mile ice field to reach the U.S. Antarctic research base at McMurdo Station. Today, as Polar Star and crew are at the far reaches of our planet for Operation Deep Freeze, senior Coast Guard leaders gathered in the nation’s capital to communicate the strategic need for icebreakers.

On Monday, Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Michel briefed the Committee on Polar Icebreaker Cost Assessment, sharing how our nation’s security and sovereign interests hinge upon year-round, assured access to the polar regions.

The briefing served as an opportunity for the Vice Commandant to highlight two heavy icebreakers – the nation’s entire inventory of this strategic asset. Only the Polar Star remains operational. Her sister ship, the Polar Sea, reached the end of her serviceable life in 2010 after she suffered casualties to two main engines.

Polar Star has been in operation for more than four decades, and Michel stressed how this aging asset requires substantial upkeep. He noted that if the Star were to suffer a casualty, the USCG has “zero self rescue capability.”

Due to the age and material condition of these vessels, Michel spoke of the need for modern, capable icebreakers as a national security imperative. To that end, the Admiral shared key findings from a 2010 study that identified the need for three heavy and three medium icebreakers to provide sufficient capability to support U.S. national interests in the polar regions.

Michel also spoke of progress in recapitalizing the national fleet. Last summer, the Coast Guard established an integrated program that allows the Navy and Coast Guard shipbuilding programs to share best practices. He said he “could not be more pleased” by the work of the integrated program as they continue toward the acquisition of the United States’ first heavy polar icebreaker in more than 40 years.

The committee – organized through the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine – was directed by Congress to develop a report to inform future options regarding the acquisition and operation of one or more heavy icebreakers. The group aims to publish their findings in July.

This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass, and has been edited for length. It may be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.