US Coast Guard to Upgrade Its Heavy Icebreaker Fleet

USCGC Polar Sea participates in ice research. Shortly after this expedition, Polar Sea suffered an engineering casualty and has since been out of service.

Updated 5/23/2017 to reflect statements made by Coast Guard commandant Zukunft regarding the program.

Earth’s polar regions, the Arctic and the Antarctic, are some of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Receiving little sun, the poles have been covered in sheets of thick, year-round ice for millennia. However, with global warming elevating average temperatures worldwide, this ice is melting at an alarming rate. This trend will undoubtedly cause great harm to the global biosphere. However, such warming has also opened the poles to economic activity, as areas once covered in thick ice are now accessible. The Arctic, earth’s northernmost pole, is of particular relevance due to its hydrocarbon reserves and the potential for new shipping routes between the Pacific and the Atlantic. For such reasons, the Arctic is poised to become a region of heightened strategic importance in the coming years.

However, conditions in the Arctic present unique challenges which hinder human activity. While the polar sea ice is melting, many decades remain before it will disappear completely. Plus, even once the year-round ice sheets have ceased to exist, seasonal ice may still drift across the seas. Such ice can, at best, prevent the passage of ships. At worst, ice can tear through a ship’s hull and cause severe damage. Thus, commercial vessels operating in the Arctic are at risk when not properly equipped to handle the prevailing conditions.

Because sea ice is highly perilous, operating effectively in the Arctic requires specialized icebreaking ships which can withstand the ice and create paths for other vessels. These icebreakers differ from normal ships in a few critical aspects. For one, they feature reinforced hulls built to form fissures in the ice without sustaining damaged. Such hulls are specially-shaped to push ice to the sides of the ship after it has been cracked. Icebreakers are more powerful than an average vessel so that they can push through thick ice without becoming stuck. In addition, all polar vessels require equipment built to withstand extreme cold and high winds for months on end.

It is often useful to categorize icebreakers based on their ice clearing effectiveness, which is determined by hull strength, displacement, power output, and a number of other factors. Unfortunately, no universally-accepted classification scheme exists; for the purposes of this article, vessels capable of overcoming more than six feet of ice continuously (without ramming) will be referred to as heavy icebreakers, while ships capable of less are medium or light icebreakers.

Many icebreakers are used to clear shipping routes — cargo vessels enlist an icebreaker for escort if they cannot handle the ice in their path alone. Thus, countries with an economic stake in the polar regions operate icebreakers to keep resources flowing.

Icebreakers also participate in resupply missions to remote towns and encampments. Most famously, the US Coast Guard (USCG) heavy icebreaker Polar Star clears a resupply path to McMurdo Station, an American Antarctic research facility, each year.

Many icebreakers help conduct scientific research in the poles. While planes and helicopters can deliver scientists to a static research station, such aircraft do not have the payload or loiter capabilities of a ship. Icebreakers allow researchers to conduct extended operations in the polar regions, working in the relative comfort of a ship, for months on end. They can also ferry researchers to any desired research location, as opposed to land-based research stations, which have a fixed location.

USCGC Healy idles as scientists take ice samples as part of a climate change research program.

Icebreakers also carry out a variety of miscellaneous maritime tasks. The Coast Guard lists the following as its Arctic missions (semicolons added): “Ice Operations; Defense Readiness; Aids to Navigation; Living Marine Resources; Marine Safety; Other Law Enforcement; Marine Environmental Protection; Ports, Waterways, & Coastal Security; Search and Rescue.”

The current American icebreaker fleet

All government-owned American icebreakers are operated by the USCG. The Navy used to include a few icebreakers, but in modern days the tasks of an icebreaker align more closely with the Coast Guard’s statutory mission. Also, nuclear attack submarines (which can dive under ice) and long-range naval attack aircraft allow for the Arctic to be defended without surface vessels.

The Coast Guard currently operates two icebreakers, the heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Star and the medium icebreaker USCGC Healy. The Coast Guard used to field another heavy icebreaker, USCGC Polar Sea, but she suffered a massive engineering casualty in 2010 and is currently being cannibalized for parts to maintain Polar Star. As the vast majority of Polar Sea’s systems have been removed, are broken, or are in very poor condition, the ship is unlikely to re-enter service.

USCGC Polar Star returns to Seattle after a lengthy deployment.

USCGC Polar Star is a Polar-class heavy icebreaker with a 13,000-ton loaded displacement and the ability to overcome 6.5 feet of at three knots. Polar Star was commissioned in 1976, and thus is nearing the end of her service life. She has a combined diesel-electric or gas (CODLAG) powertrain, meaning she can run six 3,000 bhp diesel engines for 18,000 total bhp or three 25,000 bhp gas turbines for 75,000 total bhp. Polar Star can also embark two HH-65 Dolphin medium-lift utility/search and rescue (SAR) helicopters. Originally, Polar Star had a heeling system, which pumped water between tanks in the ship’s hull in order to assist in icebreaking. Use of this system has been discontinued due to maintenance difficulties. The vessel also carries a typical assortment of maritime electronics, including surface search radars and communications equipment. Polar Star’s sole armament is a pair of .50 caliber heavy machineguns, in addition to the small arms used by crewmembers. The vessel has a complement of 142, plus 12 aviation specialists and up to 30 scientists. Because of its age, Polar Star will need an extensive and costly refit to remain in service for much longer.

USCGC Healy clears a path through Arctic ice while conducting research.

USCGC Healy is a Healy-class medium icebreaker with a 17,000-ton loaded displacement and the capability to break through 4.5 feet of ice at three knots. Commissioned in 1999, Healy is powered by a diesel-electric drivetrain, which uses four 10,600 bhp diesel engines and two electric motors to deliver around 30,000 propulsive horsepower. As such, the Healy is considerably less powerful than Polar Star despite being about 4,000 tons heavier. Like Polar Star, Healy can embark two HH-65 Dolphin helicopters.

As its lackluster icebreaking capabilities would indicate, the Healy serves primarily as a scientific research vessel rather than a dedicated icebreaker. Along with its surface search and navigation radars, the ship boasts a Type 2112 hydrographic mapping sonar. Healy can accommodate 75 Coast Guard crewmen as well as 50 scientific researchers, all in relatively-lavish superstructure cabins with ports. Other scientific amenities include five laboratories, four utility cranes, and the ability to accommodate research vans. Like Polar Star, Healy is armed solely with a pair of .50 cal machineguns. Clearly, neither of these vessels have significant organic firepower. Unlike other USCG vessels, such as the National Security Cutter, icebreakers strongly emphasize utility over combat ability and interdiction capability.

Aiviq underway in heavy seas.

Two American organizations other than the USCG operate icebreakers with upwards of 10,000 bhp (small, non-oceangoing icebreakers of less than 10,000 bhp are not considered in this article). Aiviq, built for Shell Oil, is a large (~13,000 tons empty) vessel designed to lay oil rig anchors, perform tug duties, and clean up spills if necessary. Aiviq features a large landing pad at her bow but lacks a hangar. With four diesel engines at 5,440 bhp each for a total of 21,760 bhp, Aiviq can handle a modest 3.3 feet of ice at five knots.

Nathaniel B. Palmer docked at McMurdo station. Image: Eli Duke.

The National Science Foundation, a federally-funded government organization tasked with funding and conducting scientific research, charters the light icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer from Lockheed Martin. Nathaniel B. Palmer displaces 6,900 tons loaded, has 13,200 bhp, can embark two small helicopters, and is outfitted with a heeling system. With accommodations for 37 scientists, an A-frame crane at the stern for deploying research equipment, and a full complement of scientific gear including ice coring drills and autoclaves, the Nathaniel B. Palmer is a highly-capable research vessel. Her prowess as an icebreaker, however, is modest;  Palmer can handle three feet of ice at three knots.

In the United States, all watergoing vessels can be requisitioned by the Secretary of Transportation in times of emergency, but this provision is rarely utilized. While it is possible to imagine a polar cataclysm compelling the US to utilize Aiviq or Palmer, they would be of limited utility thanks to their middling icebreaking capability and, in Aiviq’s case, lack of an embarked helicopter.

America’s icebreaking capability relative to Russia

When considering American icebreaking assets, it is important to also examine the capabilities of America’s largest polar adversary: Russia. With a massive Arctic coastline and an economy dependent on natural resources, Russia has a formidable flotilla of heavy and medium icebreakers which clear routes for shipping along the northern frontier. All of the Russian government’s most powerful icebreakers are nuclear. These ships are owned by Rosatomflot, a state enterprise.

The future crown jewels of the Russian icebreaker fleet are the LK-60Ya-class ships, 33,000-ton behemoths powered by nuclear-turbo-electric drivetrains delivering 81,000 bhp. This configuration allows the LK-60Ya class to overcome more than nine feet of ice continuously. Currently, the lead ship of the class, Arktika, has been launched and two more LK-60Ya vessels are under construction. Arktika should enter service in 2017.

50 Let Pobedy at the North Pole. Image: Christopher Michel.

The current flagships of Russia’s heavy icebreaker fleet are the Arktika-class nuclear icebreakers, of which 50 Let Pobedy (English: 50 Years of Victory) and Yamal are currently operational. They were largest in the world prior to the LK-60Ya-class and are similar in horsepower to the American Polar-class, with about 70,000 bhp. However, because of their 22,000-ton displacement and features such as a steam system and polymer bow coating, the Arktika-class can handle an exceptional nine feet of ice while traveling at three knots. Nuclear powerplants give the Arktika-class icebreakers a theoretical endurance of seven months. Each ship can also embark one Ka-27 or Mi-2 helicopter utility and ice reconnaissance. In addition to their complement of 131 sailors, the Arktika-class ships can accommodate about eighty tourists or scientists; after the collapse of the Soviet Union, international pleasure-seekers have been brought along on Arctic expeditions as a source of revenue (click this link for an intriguing look at icebreaker operations as filmed by a tourist aboard 50 Let Pobedy). Yamal is nearing the end of her service life, while 50 Let Pobedy was completed in 2007 and should continue to serve for the foreseeable future.

Taymyr escorts a tanker in the Arctic. Image: Timur V. Voronkov.

Rosatomflot also operates two shallow-draft nuclear icebreakers, Taymyr and Vaygach. Both vessels displace around 20,000 tons and can produce 48,000 shp. Their 7 feet of icebreaking capability at three knots is less than the LK-60Ya and Arktika classes, but still superior to the Polar-class. Like the Arktika-class, the nuclear powerplants of Taymyr and Vaygach allow for over seven months of continuous operations. Aviation facilities include a hangar and pad for a Ka-32 (or similarly-sized) helicopter. Taymyr and Vaygach shine in littoral icebreaking thanks to their minimum draft of 25 feet, which permits them to operate in rivers and harbors. Considering a main task of the Russian icebreaker fleet is to keep the Arctic economy running, this mission is critical.

FESCO’s diesel icebreaker Krasin in port. Image: Worldxaker.

In total, the Russian government owns and operates 19 icebreakers with more than 10,000 bhp. Russian private industry also operates 22 more icebreakers with over 10,000 bhp. Many of these vessels are quite powerful. For example, Krasin, a diesel ship operated by Russia’s Far East Shipping Company, is capable of breaking 5.9 feet of ice while steaming at two knots — only slightly inferior to Polar Star.

Expanding and replacing the American fleet

Clearly then, the Russian icebreaker fleet outclasses its American counterpart by many orders of magnitude.

However, one must remember that Russia and the United States have massively disparate requirements. America’s only significant Arctic land territory is Alaska, while Russia’s whole northern frontier borders the Arctic and is covered in sea ice. Russia’s vast fleet of icebreakers is thus necessary for its Arctic economy; America, on the other hand, has no equivalent requirement for a large shipping escort fleet. Indeed, America’s only significant economic interests in the North Pole are the hydrocarbon deposits located near Alaska, many of which have been closed to drilling by the Obama administration. If Trump were to reverse these bans and increase Arctic drilling, the Coast Guard’s oversight burden would indeed be increased. However, since oil companies tend to provide their own icebreaking capability, the Coast Guard’s icebreakers would only be called upon if a spill or disaster were to occur, so the impacts on availability would be minimal. Thus, America can secure its interests in the Arctic with a fleet many orders of magnitude smaller than Russia’s.

Currently, the Coast Guard’s highest priority is to field new heavy icebreakers to supplant Polar Star when she retires. New medium icebreakers would also be appreciated, but no concrete plans regarding medium icebreaker procurement have been formulated. Coast Guard timelines call for three new heavy icebreakers, but Congress could alter this number. The 2011 Coast Guard High Latitude Study asserted that at least three heavy and three medium icebreakers would be needed for the Coast Guard to perform its statutory mission, while six heavy and four medium icebreakers would be necessary for continuous Arctic presence. However, it is unlikely that the latter request will be fulfilled. For one, the US has managed with one heavy and one medium icebreaker for many years, so policymakers are unlikely to buy the notion that six heavy and four medium icebreakers are necessary. Furthermore, the US Navy has a number of urgent shipbuilding priorities, including the Ford-class aircraft carriers and Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, which will consume the government’s resources for the foreseeable future. While the Coast Guard and Navy budgets are separate, Navy projects may strain on the federal budget and divert congressional attention from the icebreaker program.

Thus, the USCG will almost certainly not receive six heavy icebreakers; the target of three, however, will probably be met. The notion of medium icebreaker construction might receive some attention once the heavy icebreaker construction is underway or has been completed. In summary, the Coast Guard will probably end up with a fleet of three to four new heavy icebreakers plus the medium icebreaker Healy unless sentiments change.

Update: The Coast Guard has begun plans to obtain three heavy and three medium icebreakers as of May 2017.

In a recent industry study request, the Coast Guard listed essential characteristics for its new generation of heavy icebreakers:

  • “The [Polar Icebreaker (PIB)] shall be capable of independently breaking through ice with a thickness > 6 ft (threshold) / > 8 ft (objective) at a continuous speed > 3 [knots].
  • The PIB shall be capable of independently breaking through ridged ice with a thickness of 21 ft.
  • The PIB shall have a fully mission capable (in accordance with Table 20) cutter endurance per deployment without replenishment (subsistence and fuel) > 80 days underway (threshold) / > 90 days underway (objective).
  • The PIB shall have the capability to exchange information (voice and data) with: USCG, DoD, DHS, NATO, DoS, NSF and NOAA.
  • The PIB shall have an [operational availability] of 0.85 (threshold) and 0.92 (objective) based on the total Mission Critical Functions (MCF) listed in Table 20 that defines the minimum functions required for the PIB to maneuver and control the cutter, conduct damage control, and sustain the crew.”

These performance characteristics imply that the USCG’s new heavy icebreaker will have icebreaking abilities modestly superior to Polar Star, but still inferior to Russia’s largest nuclear icebreakers. Of course, the new heavy icebreaker’s endurance will be far shorter than a nuclear vessel because of fuel limitations. It also appears that modern electronics and datalinks are a high priority, consistent with a trend in the US military towards including every major asset in a unified communication web. While not listed in the highlighted requirements, it can be inferred that aviation facilities for at least one helicopter will be mandatory, as every large USCG vessel in the past few decades has embarked helicopters for search and rescue. Also notable are the operational availability requirements of at least .85, or 85%. Essentially, this means that the ship can be broken down no more than 15% of the time, excluding scheduled maintenance. This is a high level of availability for such a large and complex vessel. Lastly, note that an armament is not included in the essential characteristics. The new icebreaker will probably end up with a few machinegun mounts or at most a small autocannon, but the fact that both America’s new icebreaker and Russia’s LK-60Ya-class omit serious armaments suggests that neither country is eager to militarize the Arctic just yet. Update: Recent statements by Coast Guard commandant Zukunft imply that, while weapons are not a priority at the moment, the ships will be built with reserve space and power generation should a heavier armament become necessary.

The Coast Guard must also decide how to obtain their new heavy icebreakers. Currently, there are no American shipbuilders with extensive experience engineering large ice-hardened vessels; the yards which built Polar Star and Healy have both been shuttered. As a result, constructing a complex heavy icebreaker in the United States would require an existing yard (most likely General Dynamics (GD) NASSCO, GD Bath Iron Works, Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) Newport News, or HII Ingalls) to tool for icebreaker production. Not only would this be a costly proposition, but the lack of experience constructing icebreakers would likely entail construction delays, cost overruns, and quality control issues.

All of the world’s shipbuilders with considerable icebreaker experience are either Scandinavian, Canadian, or Russian. The Scandinavian and Canadian yards have never constructed a heavy icebreaker of this size and complexity, so they would likely experience similar difficulties to the American shipbuilders. While Russian yards have extensive experience with exceedingly-large icebreakers, ordering a major national security asset from Russia would be unthinkable in the prevailing geopolitical climate. Furthermore, Russia’s expertise is in heavy nuclear icebreakers, while the American vessels will be conventionally powered. American politicians always frown upon the purchase of major assets from foreign companies, and federal law stipulates that all major American government ships must be produced in the United States unless a presidential waiver is granted. In light of these considerations, the purchase of a heavy icebreaker from a foreign shipyard is unlikely, especially considering the Trump administration’s anti-import stances.

Others have proposed a long-term icebreaker lease, but such a solution has many demerits. The only non-American heavy icebreakers currently afloat are Russian, and neither government would agree to a long-term lease of a major surface ship with relations being sour as they are. Medium Scandanavian icebreakers could be leased, but they would not provide many of the capabilities listed as essential by the Coast Guard. Furthermore, it is unlikely the operators of these vessels would part with them for an extended period of time. Thus, brand-new icebreakers would have to be constructed and then leased, largely defeating the original purpose of the lease, namely reducing expenditures and avoiding the construction of new hulls. Indeed, leasing only makes fiscal sense when an asset will not be retained for its whole service life. Because the Coast Guard tends to operate its vessels until their service lives expire (and in many cases long after), a lease would cost more in the long run while failing to provide any significant benefit. Furthermore, while short-term icebreaker leases are commonplace, the leasing of such a large surface ship for an extended period of time has no precedent in recent American naval history; such a move would certainly draw intense scrutiny and condemnation.

While the notions of contracting a foreign shipyard or leasing an icebreaker may be raised periodically, they are unlikely to materialize for the aforementioned reasons. More likely, an American yard will end up building the heavy icebreakers and the federal government will shoulder the increased financial burden.

Of course, all these plans are subject to change because the program is still in infancy. Most importantly, the target of three to four heavy icebreakers could be threatened by budgetary shortfalls and/or cost overruns in production. The program will also be shaped by how many shipbuilders reach out to the USCG: if only one yard is willing to take on the icebreaker, costs may balloon from lack of competition. Conversely, if a large number of shipyards indicate interest, there could be innovative solutions to the USCG’s requirements. Also, the Trump administration may view the icebreaker shortcomings as a key issue and fulfill the Coast Guard’s dream of a massive heavy icebreaker flotilla. Going forward, keep an eye out for mentions of the program in Congressional deliberations and budgetary documents in the coming year, as a number of critical decisions regarding contracting and funding are forthcoming.

About the Author

Alex Hempel

I am the owner of the site and the author of all content. You can reach me at alexhempel2012@gmail.com.

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