Coast Guard Poised To Buy Badly Needed Private Icebreaker

The U.S. Coast Guard says it is planning to buy an existing commercial icebreaker to help support operations in the highly strategic Arctic region, a possibility that has been discussed since at least 2015. This comes as work on a new class of Polar Security Cutter heavy icebreakers for the Coast Guard has suffered substantial delays, with the first of those ships now potentially not set to be delivered until 2028. The service currently only has one operational heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, which is becoming increasingly difficult to operate and maintain.

The USCGC Polar Star, the Coast Guard’s only currently operational heavy icebreaker. USCG

The U.S. Coast Guard’s main contracting office put out a public notice on March 1 about the service’s intent to purchase a “domestically produced, commercially available icebreaker” from shipbuilding and marine services company Offshore Service Vessels (which does business as Edison Chouest Offshore) via a sole-source contract. An updated version of the notice was posted earlier today. The stated “objective” of this acquisition is “to provide an operational surface asset capable of projecting U.S. presence in the Arctic.”

“Offshore Service Vessels, LLC is the only company that can meet USCG needs based on the requirements set forth in the Request for information” the service put out in 2022, according to the updated notice. The stated requirements in the RFI were:

  • Constructed in a U.S. shipyard.
  • International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) ice class PC3, equivalent or higher.
  • Current certificate of classification.
  • Capable of breaking at least 3 feet of ice ahead at a continuous speed of 3kts.
  • Capable of underway operation for a minimum of 60 days without resupply.
  • Maximum draft of 29 feet.
  • At least 15 years of original design service life remaining.
  • On-board medical treatment facility.
  • Ability to land a USCG HH/MH-65 or MH-60T helicopter or equivalent.

The notice does not identify the ship the Coast Guard is looking to buy from Edison Chouest Offshore, but there have been discussions about the possibility of acquiring the company’s M/V Aiviq since at least 2015. As of 2022, reports indicated that there did not appear to be another commercial ice-capable ship available that met the Coast Guard’s requirements.

Aiviq is a nearly 361-foot (110-meter) long ice-capable multi-purpose offshore support vessel. A pair of U.S.-based shipyards that are subsidiaries of Edison Chouest Offshore were responsible for the construction of the ship, which was completed in 2012.

Aiviq “is a Polar Class 3 icebreaker” and “is reported to be the world’s most powerful icebreaker privately owned,” according to an op-ed The Marine Executive published in 2018. Polar Class 3 is defined as a capability to conduct “year-round operation in second-year ice which may include multi-year ice inclusions.” Second-year ice is up to around eight feet (2.5 meters) thick, per the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) definitions.

For additional context, what the U.S. government categories as heavy icebreakers, like the existing USCGC Polar Star, are “defined as ships that have icebreaking capability of 6 feet of ice continuously at 3 knots, and can back and ram through at least 20 feet of ice,” according to a report from the National Research Council of the National Academies.

In its current configuration, Aiviq has a helipad very prominently on the bow and a large open deck at the stern with built-in cranes on either side. It also has the ability to launch and recover small boats from davits on either side of the main superstructure.

The M/V Aiviq off the coast of Alaska in 2012. USCG

How much the Coast Guard may be expecting to pay for Aiviq is unknown, as is how much it might cost in addition to refit the commercial vessel to meet the service’s specific requirements and where exactly this money might come from. The service had been in line to receive $150 million for this purpose in its 2022 Fiscal Year budget, but Congress ultimately stripped that funding. There has been a push to restore those funds in the 2024 Fiscal Year budget, but passage of that has been tied up in a broader budgetary impasse in Congress.

The Coast Guard has pushed back on proposals to buy the Aiviq in the past in part over concerns about required modifications. In 2016, now-retired Adm. Charles Michel, then-Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard, told members of Congress that then-Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft had personally inspected the ship and found it “not suitable for military service without a substantial refit.”

All of this further raises questions about when the Aiviq might actually enter Coast Guard service after it is purchased.

The Coast Guard’s need for new icebreakers, and more of them overall, is not new. As noted, USCGC Polar Star is the only remaining heavy icebreaker in its inventory. The service also has a medium icebreaker, the USCGC Healy, with more limited capabilities. Polar Star has suffered fires and other major breakdowns in recent years. This ship has been going through a phased service life extension program (SLEP) that is expected to keep it in service through 2025.

The USCGC Healy helps free a Russian-flagged tanker from the ice near Alaska in 2012. USCG

The bigger issue for the Coast Guard has been a series of major delays in the construction of the trio of new Polar Security Cutters that it plans to acquire. VT Halter Marine received a contract to design and build the first of these ships in 2019 with the original expectation being that it would be delivered this year. The second two would follow in 2025 and 2026.

A rendering of VT Halter’s Polar Security Cutter design. Technology Associated, Inc. via VT Halter Marine

However, difficulties in the design process repeatedly pushed the expected delivery date of the first Polar Security Cutter date back. In 2022, Bollinger Shipyards acquired VT Halter Marine and assumed responsibility as the prime contractor for these ships. The following year, Bollinger finally began building the first example. The Coast Guard may now have to wait until 2028 to take delivery of the first of these new heavy icebreakers, according to a January 17 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). When construction of the other two might start, let alone be finished, is uncertain.

The Coast Guard had also planned to acquire three new medium icebreakers, but the timeline for that is unclear. Furthermore, the service has consistently said since last April that it has now assessed that it needs a mix of at least eight to nine heavy and medium icebreakers to adequately meet its polar icebreaking mission requirements, according to CRS.

To put emphasis on the constraints of the current situation, Polar Star left McMurdo Station in Antarctica on February 12 after 51 straight days of supporting operations in that region as part of Operation Deep Freeze 2024. While the ship was there, there was no other U.S. heavy icebreaker available to help out, if required, in the Arctic.

All of this comes at a time when the Arctic is only becoming more and more strategically significant to U.S. national security. With the U.S. military focused heavily on planning for a potential high-end fight in the Pacific against China, Alaska’s existing geographic significance, in particular, has only become more pronounced.

China and Russia, the United States’ chief geopolitical competitors, have been stepping up military activity, including joint exercises, in the High North in recent years. Russia has also been actively expanding its network of permanent bases in the region, as well.

Global climate change has been a contributing factor to this increased competition in the Arctic. As ice has receded, new access to trade routes and natural resources, from oil to fish, has emerged.

“In recognition of this reality and our state’s unrivaled strategic location, for years, I’ve been pressing the Navy and each successive administration to commit to a greater Naval, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps presence in Alaska, more Arctic-capable vessels, and more infrastructure to host these assets, like the deep-water port of Nome,” Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican, said last year after a flotilla of 11 Chinese and Russian navy vessels conducted joint training in international waters near the Aleutian Islands.

More specifically to the matter of icebreakers, Russia currently has the largest icebreaker fleet, by far, anywhere in the world, with dozens of vessels on hand of varying capabilities, and it is still growing. It is also the operator of the world’s largest icebreaker and is the only country that currently has nuclear-powered types.

Russia’s first nuclear-powered Project 22220 icebreaker, Arktika, currently the largest such ship in the world. Rosatom

China has also been looking to expand its icebreaking fleets to include nuclear-powered types to support its own Arctic ambitions. In his last year of office, President Donald Trump directed a review of U.S. icebreaking needs with a specific demand to explore the potential value of adding nuclear-powered to the U.S. inventory.

A breakdown of major icebreakers in service, under construction, or otherwise in planning around the world, as of 2017. Though dated, this graphic still gives a good sense of the immense disparity between the size of Russia’s icebreaker fleets and those of the rest of the world. USCG

Altogether, it is not necessarily surprising that the Coast Guard has revisited the idea of acquiring an available U.S.-made commercial icebreaker to make up for its clear shortfall in this regard. At the same time, the acquisition of M/V Aiviq would not put the service substantially closer to how many icebreakers it says it needs even if that ship were to join its fleets tomorrow. With USCGC Polar Star only currently set to remain on duty through next year, it is possible that the size of the Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleet could end up unchanged despite this planned purchase.

All told, the Coast Guard’s announcement that it is now formally expecting to buy an existing icebreaker from Edison Chouest Offshore speaks to the limited options available to meet this critical demand in the near term.

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