Behold America’s New And Desperately Needed Heavy Icebreaker

After years of back and forth, the U.S. government has finally issued a contract for the U.S. Coast Guard’s first new heavy icebreaker in decades. VT Halter Marine will build the three new Polar Security Cutters, or PSCs, and expects to deliver the first ship in 2024. These ships are absolutely critical to the United States continued ability to conduct operations in ice-filled waters, especially in the increasingly strategic Arctic region.

The Pentagon announced the deal, valued at nearly $746 million, in a daily press release on Apr. 23, 2019. The U.S. Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) issued the contract, but will manage the program together with the Coast Guard, according to a separate statement. The Coast Guard, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, and the Navy, which is also looking to increase its presence in the Arctic specifically, will both contribute to funding the project, as well. The bulk of the work will occur at VT Halter Marine‘s shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

“Against the backdrop of great power competition, the Polar Security Cutter is key to our nation’s presence in the polar regions,” Admiral Karl L. Schultz, Commandant of the Coast Guard, said in a statement. “This contract award marks an important step towards building the nation’s full complement of six polar icebreakers to meet the unique mission demands that have emerged from increased commerce, tourism, research, and international activities in the Arctic and Antarctic.”  

The Coast Guard ultimately plans to purchase three heavy icebreakers, as well as three medium icebreakers. This new contract only covers the heavy ships, which have also been referred to as Heavy Polar Icebreakers (HPIB) in the past. Heavy icebreakers typically have the capability to break through ice at least 10 feet thick, if not thicker, while medium icebreakers generally can only manage to crack through ice up to around 8 feet thick.

VT Halter Marine has yet to release any statement of its own or issue any detailed specifics regarding its design. The Mississippi-headquartered shipbuilder was one of five companies to win design review contracts from the Coast Guard in February 2017. The others were Bollinger Shipyards, Fincantieri Marine Group, General Dynamics/National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO), and Huntington Ingalls. The contract announcement said that designs from only two other companies had been under consideration in the end, but did not name them.

Previous contracting documents from the U.S. Coast Guard put the projected displacement of the future PSCs at approximately 17,690 tons. The Coast Guard’s lone operational heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, displaces less than 14,000 tons with a full load. 

An artist’s conception of VT Halter Marine’s PSC design, first obtained by USNI News, shows the ship will have a number of important features, including a second, higher bridge for better downward visibility during icebreaking operations and a helipad with hangar at the stern.

An artist’s conception of the VT Halter Marine Polar Security Cutter design., VT Halter Marine via USNI News

In addition, the graphic appears to show a thruster in the bow to help in maneuvering through ice-filled waters. The ship will also use a propulsion system with propellers mounted in traversable azipods, again to give the ship improved handling. 

Azipods contain an electric motor that drives the propeller, with the power coming from whatever system is generating electricity for the rest of the ship. As is often the case with azipods, the examples on the PSC have propellers that face forward and “pull” the ship, rather than traditional propulsion arrangements that involve rear facing screws.

All told, the new PSCs should be larger and more capable than the Polar Star the Coast Guard operates now. The service is in desperate need of new icebreakers in general, at a time when the Arctic region, in particular, is only becoming more important economically and geopolitically. 

At present, the Coast Guard technically has two heavy icebreakers, the USCGC Polar Star and the USCGC Polar Sea, as well as the medium icebreaker USCGC Healy. In reality, since 2010, the Polar Sea has been in an inactive state after a major engine failure and now serves as a source of spare parts for the Polar Star

The USCGC Polar Star., USCG

Lockheed Shipbuilding delivered the two Polar class icebreakers in the late 1970s and, despite a number of major overhauls and service life extensions, they have only become increasingly more difficult to operate and maintain. To underscore the point, in February 2019, Polar Star suffered a major fire in her incinerator room after supporting a supply run to the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The blaze took two hours to get under control and caused not insignificant damage, though a final cost estimate is still forthcoming. The year before, the ship had also suffered an engine failure and flooding while operating near McMurdo. Thankfully there were no injuries in either case.

The Healy is newer than the Polars, having gotten commissioned in 1999, but is also less capable. These three icebreakers are the only ones that any arm of the U.S. government owns, too. In 2017 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that the Coast Guard had only been able to perform 78 percent of assigned icebreaking missions between 2011 and 2016. For years now, The National Science Foundation has charted an additional icebreaker to help make up for the shortfall.

The Coast Guard has been working hard since 2014 to acquire new icebreakers, without success, and even just last year, there were concerns that budget cuts could threaten the program. The important thing now will be ensuring that the new heavy icebreakers arrive on schedule. In September 2018, GAO called into question whether or not the service’s program schedule was realistic, which you can read about in more detail here

At that time, the Coast Guard and the Navy said the expected the first new heavy icebreaker to get delivered in 2023, a year earlier than the current plan. The Coast Guard is already looking at another potentially costly life extension program for the Polar Star to avoid a gap starting in 2020 in which the U.S government would own no heavy icebreakers whatsoever. The Navy says that there are monetary incentives in the new contract with VT Halter Marine for early delivery.

A timeline showing the projected life of the Polar Star, with and without a life extension effort, along with the projected delivery dates for the three Polar Security Cutters, starting in 2024., GAO

This sort of gap is one the United States can ill afford. Due to global climate change, the annual periods where season ice presents a major risk to ships are shortening, but at the same time, this has only increased interest around the world in exploring potential natural resource wealth, as well as new commercial shipping routes, especially in the Arctic. This, in turn, has raised the prospect of conflicting territorial claims and the potential for violent competition in that region between the United States and its “greater power” competitors, Russia and China.

Russia has been particularly active in expanding its Arctic infrastructure for both civil and military purposes and has built 14 icebreakers for various arms of the country’s government just since 2013, according to the Coast Guard. The Russians have dozens of additional icebreakers still in service, too. China has also been building additional icebreakers and is now in the process of building a 30,000-ton displacement nuclear-powered design.

A snapshot of major maritime developments in the Arctic region since 2013, according to a recent US Coast Guard report., USCG

“The Coast Guard is the sole provider and operator of the U.S. polar capable fleet, but [it] currently does not have the capability or capacity to assure access in the high latitudes,” the service said in a recently issued Arctic strategy review, the first it has produced since 2013. “Closing the gap requires persistent investment in capabilities and capacity for polar operations, including the Polar Security Cutter.”

The Coast Guard, with the help of the Navy, has now finally taken the first step in acquiring the new heavy icebreakers that it desperately needs.

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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.