Only U.S. Heavy Icebreaker Is Falling Apart On Antarctic Mission

The U.S. Coast Guard’s only operational heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, is still providing critical services to various U.S. government agencies in Antarctica despite suffering an engine failure and flooding. The incident is a worrying reminder of both how vital these types of ships are and the stark limitations of America’s capabilities in this regard, all as the service is struggling to move ahead with plans to buy all-new vessels.

According to a press release the Coast Guard published on Feb. 6, 2018, Polar Star departed her homeport in Seattle on Nov. 30, 2017 for a cruise that is still scheduled to wrap up in March 2018. The ship’s main mission during the trip has been to cut a path from the open ocean through the ice, which can be 10 feet thick or more, to an improvised ice pier that serves the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station. She has subsequently kept this channel clear of potentially dangerous ice so that other ships, including those under contract to the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command, can safely bring supplies to and from the frigid base.

“We had less ice this year than last year,” U.S. Coast Guard Captain Michael Davanzo, said in the press release. But “we had several engineering challenges to overcome to get to the point where we could position ourselves to moor in McMurdo.”

“Engineering challenges” is a euphemism that doesn’t do justice to the problems Polar Star had to deal with just getting to McMurdo and the work that the ship’s crew did to make sure the ship could continue its mission. The first issue cropped up on Jan. 11, 2018 when one of the icebreakers three main gas turbines failed.

The videos below are from Polar Star’s already problematic 2017-2018 cruise.

The crew traced the problem to the ship’s 1970s-era electrical system, which was interfering with the electronic controls for the turbine. Between 2010 and 2012, Vigor Industrial in Seattle had performed a $62 million refit on the ship, which it appears left much of the original wiring intact.

Despite locating the source of the trouble, the Coast Guard’s press release does not say that the crew had any means of repairing the fault and Polar Star pressed on to McMurdo with only two turbines. There’s no indication from that the crew has yet resolved the failure, though they continue to conduct their mission.

The crew of the Polar Star work on the ship’s failed main turbine in January 2018., USCG

Then, on Jan. 16, 2018, the seal on one of the ship’s three turbine shafts failed, letting 20 gallons of water per minute flow into the engineering compartment. This would be a serious problem under any circumstances, but the ambient temperatures in Antarctica, which might not get above freezing and can be below zero overnight in January, can only have made the situation more complicated.

The crew did successfully get a emergency shaft seal in place and pumped out the compartment before performing more significant repairs. The Coast Guard says there were thankfully no injuries at all as a result of the malfunction.

Polar Star‘s three main propellers are visible in this picture of the ship in dry dock., USCG

In spite of these issues, Polar Star safely escorted the cargo ship Ocean Giant and tanker Maersk Peary to and from McMurdo. But in the press release, U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Fred Midgette, head of the service’s Pacific Area command, which has its headquarters in Alameda, California, did not mince words about what could have happened if the accidents had put the icebreaker out of commission, even temporarily.

“If the Polar Star were to suffer a catastrophic mechanical failure, the nation would not be able to support heavy icebreaker missions like Operation Deep Freeze,” Midgette said, referring to the annual U.S. military operation that helps deliver essential supplies to the U.S. Antarctic Program by both sea and air. “Our nation has no [other] vessel capable of rescuing the crew if the icebreakers were to fail in the ice.”

At present, the Coast Guard has a total of three icebreakers in its inventory, including the Polar Star. Unfortunately, her sister ship, USCGC Polar Sea, is now nothing more than a parts donor and its not seaworthy. The remaining ship, USCGC Healy, is a medium icebreaker, which can only cut through around eight feet of ice and serves largely as a research vessel. The National Science Foundation charters its own “ice-capable” research ship, the Nathaniel B. Palmer, for operations in Antarctica, but again, it cannot perform the same duties as the Polar-class vessels. 

The USCGC Healy helps free the Russian-flagged tanker Renda from ice near Nome, Alaska in 2012., USCGC

The Coast Guard knows it’s in a precarious position and it’s been well aware of the situation for more than a decade. But despite repeated warnings and steadily growing concerns about Russia’s militarization of the Arctic region, the service has had trouble securing the funding to buy all-new icebreakers.

Part of this stems from the curious bureaucratic position it occupies in the U.S. government as a uniformed military service outside of the Department of Defense. At the moment, the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, which has a far smaller overall budget than the military and no other components involved or otherwise interested in large shipbuilding projects who could possibly share the burden.

The other problem is that no arm of the U.S. government has bought a heavy icebreaker in more than four decades. The smaller Healy, which is a much more modern design by comparison, is still nearly 20 years old. Building these ships is already a relatively specialized affair, which means hiring a shipyard to begin building a clean-sheet design will likely require significant time and funding.

“We know if you have a hot production line the unit costs come down, then you build a new product,” U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft told a gathering at the annual WEST 2018 conference on Feb. 8, 2018. “New product is more expensive than what you’re already building.”

A Penguin stands in front of Polar Star in Antarctica in January 2018., USCG

As such, the Coast Guard has been working with the U.S. Navy to finalize a set of requirement that it hopes will keep the initial price tag as a low as possible, according to USNI News. Part of that plan might involve including trade space in the design that will sit empty at first, but end up full of equipment during later refits.

One potential capability the service has already expressed an interest in is anti-ship cruise missiles and other weaponry, which could make the ships a more multi-purpose tool, especially in the Arctic. As already noted, Russia has dramatically expanded its military presence in that region, which has significant natural resource wealth and could open itself up to becoming an important shipping route as the polar ice melts as a result of global climate change. 

Russian developments include a host of new bases, coupled with deep-water ports, large airfields, and anti-aircraft and other defenses, all specifically tuned to the frigid environment. To support these sites, Russia has invested heavily in its own icebreaking fleet, which consist of around 40 total ships of various types, including huge nuclear-powered heavy icebreakers. The Kremlin is also planning to build a flotilla of ice-capable, anti-ship missile-armed corvettes and military support ships.

Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreaker Taymyr., Tuomas Romu via Wikimedia

“We need to look differently at what an icebreaker does,” Zukunft told legislators during a hearing in May 2017. “U.S. presence in the Arctic is necessary for more than just power projection; it’s a matter of national security… If they remain unchecked, the Russians will extend their sphere of influence to over five million square miles of Arctic ice and water.”

It’s not hard to see how a lack of icebreaking capability could limit the ability of the U.S. military to respond to a crisis in the Arctic or Antarctic regions. The U.S. Navy’s latest Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship USS Little Rock has been stuck in Montreal, Canada since December 2017 and is likely to sit there pierside until at least some time in March 2018, when the water warms up sufficiently to allow safe passage up the St. Lawrence Seaway and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

USS Little Rock docked in Montreal, Canada on Dec. 16, 2017., USN

The Coast Guard expects to release a formal request for proposals to shipbuilders for the first of three new heavy icebreakers by the end of February 2018. The service then hopes the winning company will be able to launch that ship some time in 2023, but wants to offer incentives to do so faster.

There are also plans to buy three new medium icebreakers, as well. In his remarks in February 2018, Zukunft said that he believes a total fleet of six icebreakers of both types is “the right number,” but also appeared to indicate that this might not necessarily remain the case. Experts and advocates have questioned whether the medium icebreakers are really necessary and whether a fleet of four heavy icebreakers might offer a more cost effective and capable course of action for the Coast Guard.

Of course, any shipbuilding plans are dependent on Congress decision to approve the necessary budget requests and then appropriate the funds to actually pay for the purchases. Lawmakers have already let the U.S. government briefly come to a formal halt twice since the beginning of 2018, but legislators did manage to pass a large two-year spending bill on Feb. 9, 2018, which President Donald Trump subsequently signed into law.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with a member of the Coast Guard in September 2017., USCG

Zukunft remains positive since a draft budget proposal for the 2019 fiscal year does include money for his first icebreaker. However, as we’ve already noted, that’s no guarantee that Congress won’t make its own changes – which could involve subtracting or adding money for the project – or that it will be able to find the actual funds to get work on the ship going or keep it on schedule.

The Coast Guard’s top officer is no doubt hopeful to get a surge of funds from President Trump, who has promised to significantly increase defense spending and also repeatedly praised the Coast Guard in the wake of a series of devastating hurricanes in 2017. “There’s no brand that went up more than the Coast Guard,” Trump said in November 2017 at Thanksgiving event. “What a job you’ve done.”

But until a new heavy icebreaker actually comes online, the Coast Guard will have no choice but to keep sending Polar Star out to sea and relying heavily on the determination of her crew to keep her running.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.