Coast Guard and Navy contract the construction of the first new polar icebreaker
The U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy have awarded a contract for the design and construction of the first of a series of new heavy icebreakers, otherwise known as polar security cutters, the Coast Guard announced on April 23. The announcement came a few days after the Coast Guard published its latest strategy for Arctic operations.
The fixed price contract of $745.9 million for the icebreaker includes the engineering and design of a new icebreaker class, as well as the construction of the first of the vessels in the class. The idea is that the engineering and design will apply to the construction of further vessels in the class and will not need to be replicated: The contract includes options for two additional icebreakers of the same design, with a total contract value of $1.9 billion. According to the Department of Defense the contract was awarded to VT Halter Marine Inc. of Pascagoula, Mississippi.
The plan is to start construction of the new icebreaker in 2021, with delivery anticipated for 2024, although there are incentives for early delivery, the Coast Guard said.
Funding was approvedThe announcement comes in the wake of the February passage and presidential signing of a federal appropriations bill that included funding for the construction of a single polar icebreaker.
“Against the backdrop of great power competition, the polar security cutter is key to our nation’s presence in the polar regions,” said Adm. Karl L. Schultz, Coast Guard commandant, when announcing the construction contract. “With the strong support of both the Trump administration and the United States Congress, 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.”
“This is an important and significant step towards an operational polar security cutter to help meet our nation’s needs in the Arctic,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I have worked tirelessly to fully fund a polar icebreaker fleet and will continue to support the Coast Guard to make a U.S. polar capable fleet a reality. The U.S. cannot stand on the sidelines as other Arctic and non-Arctic nations continue to expand their icebreaker fleets and with it, their Arctic presence.”
Currently the Coast Guard only operates two polar capable icebreakers: the Healy, a medium duty icebreaker, much used as a base for polar research, and the Polar Star, which is a heavy icebreaker but is 41 years old and nearing the end of its operational life. A third icebreaker, the Polar Sea, sister ship to the Polar Star, is laid up in port and has become a source of spare parts for the Polar Star.
Arctic strategyThe icebreaker announcement comes within the context of the Coast Guard’s latest Arctic strategy. The strategy revolves around three basic principles: maintaining the Arctic as a conflict-free region; maintaining unity of effort through the exercise of leadership with federal, state and local agencies while also working with other military services; and undertaking continuous innovation in terms of technologies and policies.
And the agency sees three core “lines of effort” that will be needed in support of these policies.
First, the agency sees a need to enhance its capability to operate in a dynamic Arctic region. Having an effective capability includes operating sufficient heavy icebreakers, presumably as exemplified by the new icebreaker that the Coast Guard and Navy have now committed to have built. Reliable high-latitude communications and comprehensive maritime domain awareness are also needed, the agency says. There must also be adequate personnel, aviation and logistical resources to support operations in the region. Currently the Coast Guard lacks the capability to fully conduct its Arctic role and the agency will pursue actions to fill the capability gaps, the Arctic strategy says.
Rules-based order in regionThe second line of effort involves strengthening the rules-based order in the Arctic region. Actions by strategic competitors in the region challenge the long-standing rules and norms that maintain peace and lower tensions in the region, the strategy says. Nations can underpin the long-term endurance of these rules and norms by demonstrating a commitment to upholding them. And the Coast Guard will work with allies and partners to deter threats to those norms, and to support U.S. defense priorities in the Arctic. The Coast Guard is also dedicated to supporting international organizations such as the Arctic Council, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum and the International Maritime Organization, the strategy says.
The third line of effort involves collaborating with stakeholders in the Arctic, including Arctic communities and people who work in the region, to develop new practices and technologies for serving the maritime community and managing risks. The Coast Guard will lead and participate in planning and exercises with a variety of local, governmental and international partners, to test preparedness and adaptability in responding to maritime emergencies. And the agency will lead effective responses to any crisis that happens in the Arctic marine domain.
Evolving situationThe strategy says that the increasing accessibility to the Arctic and increasing activity in the region will create more demand for Coast Guard services. At the same time, while the region appears to be becoming more navigable, there are environmental and economic factors that make it difficult to predict the scope and rate of change. And variability in the physical environment in the near future exposes both mariners and Arctic communities to unpredictable levels of risk. Within this overall scenario, and as U.S. economic and security interests become more closely tied to the Arctic, developments in the region create a new risk landscape for the nation and the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard says that its updated Arctic strategy recognizes and addresses this evolving situation.
“The Arctic Strategic Outlook reaffirms the Coast Guard’s commitment to American leadership in the region through partnership, unity of effort, and continuous innovation,” said Adm. Schultz “We understand the significant investment required to secure the Arctic, and we appreciate and embrace the trust the American people have placed in the U.S. Coast Guard. We will remain vigilant in protecting our national interests in the polar regions.”