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At the Poles, the End – or the Beginning – of an Era

Part 1: With the United States down to one polar icebreaker, will it be able to meet the demands of a rapidly changing Arctic environment?

Its massive hull, driven by a gas turbine and diesel-electric engines that together generated 75,000 horsepower, could plow through ice as thick as 21 feet – 6 feet continuously, at a speed of three knots. It once smashed its way through to the southernmost point in Antarctica navigable by sea. One of only three ships to completely transit the Arctic Ocean and circumnavigate the North American continent, it was also the first American surface ship to reach the North Pole. And now the USCGC Polar Sea is on its way to retirement: According to the White House’s 2012 budget proposal, the nearly 40-year-old Polar Sea will be decommissioned in 2011 and its crew – the only heavy icebreaker crew funded by the federal government – will be transferred to its sister ship, Polar Star.

The move assures that the United States will be without a heavy icebreaker until 2013, when the renovation of Polar Star – which has been nonoperational since 1996 – is scheduled to be complete. It also means that the entire U.S. fleet of polar-capable icebreakers now stands at one: The USCGC Healy, commissioned in 1999 and built specifically as an Arctic research vessel. Healy is a sophisticated scientific ship, but doesn’t have the power of either of the Polar-class icebreakers.

The question is unavoidable: Is the Coast Guard – and perhaps the U.S. government – getting out of the icebreaking business?

Polar Star in drydock lr

The CGC Polar Star (WAGB 10) in drydock. Its refitting and refurbishment is not scheduled to be complete until 2013. U.S. Coast Guard photo

It’s both a good time and a bad time to be asking the question: Good, because the polar regions – and especially the Arctic, where warming temperatures are opening up new areas for shipping, energy exploration, and tourism – are rapidly changing and presenting new challenges for the Coast Guard. For those wanting a quick solution, however, it’s a question bound to disappoint, because the federal government and the Coast Guard don’t have an answer – yet.

A Changing Role for Icebreakers

The American polar ice breaking fleet was essentially launched during World War II, to enable the United States and its allies to deter a perceived German threat against Greenland. By the 1970s, there were eight U.S. polar icebreakers, serving as multi-mission assets in the Cold War Arctic – supplying manned surveillance sites along the Defense Early Warning (DEW) Line, as well as supporting scientific efforts in Antarctica. As the DEW Line gradually became more automated, the mission of the icebreaking fleet became more focused on scientific support – in fact, until last year, when it was transferred back to the Coast Guard, funding for the operation and maintenance of the U.S. ice breaking fleet belonged to the National Science Foundation. Gradually, the fleet dwindled to its current size – now a fraction of the other Arctic powers’ fleets. Russia currently operates 18 polar icebreakers; Finland nine; Canada six; and Sweden five.

Congress’s decision to return budgetary authority to the Coast Guard is one of the first signals of a new transition in the role of U.S. polar icebreakers. The Coast Guard anticipates a growing role in the waters north of Alaska, where climate change is transforming vast regions of ice into navigable waters for longer periods of time each year. In these navigable waters, there are stirrings of activity, as surrounding nations increasingly covet the region’s natural resources – especially its energy resources. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that around 25 percent of the world’s untapped oil and gas reserves, perhaps more, lie beneath the Arctic Ocean.

Given the likelihood of an increased need for a Coast Guard presence in the Arctic, observers have expressed concern that there is so far no concrete plan to build new icebreakers – or in fact to increase any of the Coast Guard’s polar capabilities. In January 2011, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report, “The Coast Guard’s Polar Icebreaker Maintenance, Upgrade, and Acquisition Program,” ( charging that the Coast Guard’s lack of icebreaking capacity has rendered the service incapable of meeting mission requirements in both the Arctic (Bering Sea fisheries enforcement, search and rescue in the Beaufort Sea, winter research, and others) and Antarctic (resupply of U.S. research stations). Because the Coast Guard has not followed its life cycle replacement plan – which calls for replacing icebreaking ships after 30 years of service – the report said, “Without the continued use of icebreakers, the United States will lose its ability to maintain a presence in the polar regions, the Coast Guard’s expertise to perform ice operations will continue to diminish, and missions will continue to go unmet.”

In March, the National Academy of Sciences released a draft version of a broader analysis, “National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces.”  The study warned of a serious mismatch between the changing Arctic environment (“… the Arctic Ocean is rapidly acquiring the types of maritime activities in the summer months that normally occur elsewhere in the world’s ice-free oceans”) and the surface assets of both the Navy and the Coast Guard. It referenced a 2007 study by its own National Research Council, which recommended that the federal government immediately budget, design, and build two new icebreakers to replace Polar Sea and Polar Star.

The Coast Guard can hardly be blamed for the fact that these icebreakers haven’t been budgeted, built, or even dimly conceived – with a price tag of up to a billion dollars each, they would consume nearly 20 percent of the Coast Guard’s already shrinking budget.

Part 2: Answering questions about requirements and assets


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...