Defense Media Network

Icebreakers are Vital to U.S. Presence in the Polar Regions

America’s icebreaker fleet is on thin ice, but activity to replace them is warming up. The U.S. Coast Guard is in the “analyze/select” phase of acquiring a new polar icebreaker. This phase involves evaluating acquisition approaches and assessing the merits of each approach.

The United States needs icebreakers for conducting and supporting nine of 11 statutory missions in the polar regions, defending U.S. sovereignty in the Arctic by helping to maintain a U.S. presence in U.S. territorial waters in the region; defending other U.S. interests in polar regions, including economic interests in waters that are within the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) north of Alaska; monitoring sea traffic in the Arctic, including ships bound for the United States; and conducting other typical Coast Guard missions (such as search and rescue, law enforcement, and protection of marine resources) in Arctic waters, including U.S. territorial waters north of Alaska.

The operational polar ice breaking fleet currently includes one 399-foot heavy icebreaker – CGC Polar Star (WAGB 10), commissioned in 1976 – and one 420-foot medium icebreaker – CGC Healy (WAGB 20), commissioned in 2000 – which was designed for polar research activities. These cutters are designed for open-water ice breaking and feature reinforced hulls and specially angled bows.

Polar Star underwent a three-year reactivation and returned to operations in late 2013. Since then, Polar Star has completed three Operation Deep Freeze deployments to resupply McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The Coast Guard expects Polar Star to remain in service through approximately 2020 to 2023. Sister ship CGC Polar Sea (WAGB 11), was placed in commissioned inactive status by the service in 2011, and some of its parts were used to reactivate Polar Star.

Healy Arctic

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a medium icebreaker, sits in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska during an Arctic deployment in support of scientific research and polar operations, July 29, 2017. The Coast Guard’s leadership role in providing a continued Arctic presence is essential to national security, maritime domain awareness, freedom of navigation, U.S. sovereign interests, and scientific research. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Meredith Manning

Healy is a bit larger than Polar Star and Polar Sea – it is 420 feet long and displaces about 16,000 tons. However, due to its design (propulsion systems and hull form), it has less ice breaking capability than Polar Star and Polar Sea and, as a result, is considered a medium polar icebreaker.

Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft has ruled out trying to bring back the currently inactive Polar Sea to duty. In an address at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank in May 2017, he said the Coast Guard’s long-term thinking calls for six icebreakers: three heavy and three medium.

“Consequently, the Coast Guard expedited its acquisition of new heavy icebreakers with delivery of the first polar icebreaker scheduled in 2023,” Zukunft said.

The Coast Guard awarded five firm fixed-price contracts for heavy polar icebreaker design studies and analysis in February 2017. The studies will identify design and systems approaches to help reduce acquisition cost and production time lines. Draft heavy polar icebreaker system specifications were released in April 2017 in a request-to-industry input on heavy polar icebreaker technology risks, sustainability, productivity, and affordability. The draft specifications addressed icebreaker hull structure, propulsion and electrical plants, command and control systems, outfitting, and auxiliary components.

There is widespread congressional support for the icebreakers.

“The United States continues to be late to the game in the Arctic, as evidenced most clearly by our meager existing fleet of Coast Guard icebreakers capable of operating in this important region,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, “with rapidly increasing commercial activity and sea traffic in the Arctic and Russia’s alarming military buildup, America can no long afford to neglect this area of the globe.”

The crew of the CGC Polar Star poses for a photo on the frozen Ross Sea off of Antarctica, Jan. 11, 2017. The crew, operating as part of Operation Deep Freeze 2017, was deployed to perform Antarctic ice breaking operations to ensure the delivery of essential supplies to the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer David Mosley

By comparison, Sullivan pointed out, Russia has 41 governmental and privately owned conventional and nuclear icebreakers, with 11 additional icebreakers in development or planning, including three new nuclear-powered icebreakers to be completed by 2020.

A June 2013 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Mission Need Statement reads that “current requirements and future projections … indicate the Coast Guard will need to expand its icebreaking capacity, potentially requiring a fleet of up to six icebreakers (3 heavy and 3 medium) to adequately meet mission demands in the high latitudes. …”

“We probably know more about outer space than the Arctic,” said Zukunft during his address at the CSIS forum in May. About 20 percent of the waters are charted to modern standards, he added.

The diminishing multi-year ice in the Arctic is opening up the region for shipping. Cruise ships are venturing into higher latitudes, and routes from Asia to Europe can be much shorter by crossing through Arctic waters in the summer months. But diminished ice doesn’t mean ice free. Any kind of scientific or commercial activity in the region must be self-sufficient because help is far away, even in the best of conditions, and the Arctic is usually the worst of conditions. Compounding the distance for any kind of medical support or resupply is the nearly total lack of communications infrastructure. “The biggest problem [with communications there] is bandwidth,” and that affects all operations, Zukunft said.

For years, the U.S. Navy operated armed icebreakers, which were later turned over to the Coast Guard. Today, there is talk that the nation’s new icebreakers could be armed. But having the space, weight, and power margins to ensure national level interests are satisfied (e.g., defense readiness, maintaining national sovereignty, etc.) is essential and must be designed in from the beginning; not added on as an afterthought.


Urgent requirement

The U.S. Coast Guard’s “Polar Icebreaker Operational Requirements Document” (ORD) is the formal statement, developed by the sponsor in collaboration with the stakeholders, of the operational performance and related operational parameters for the proposed concept. The polar icebreaker (PIB) ORD is the source document that consolidates and describes the operational system in terms of a range of acceptable and desirable standards of performance; support and maintenance requirements; and serves as the source document for a host of systems engineering activities, ongoing requirements analysis, and cost-estimating to ensure the success of the program. The PIB ORD was developed by a 46-member, 11-agency integrated product team (IPT) to describe the operating requirements that span the doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities spectrum needed to meet the Coast Guard’s missions in high latitudes.

Xue Long Chinese icebereaker

Xue Long, a Chinese icebreaker, departing from the inner harbour of the Port of Fremantle, Western Australia, on its way back to its port of registry, Shanghai, China, after a visit to Antarctica, March 28, 2016. Bahnfrend via Wikimedia Commons


Navy-Coast Guard Team

According to the “U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap: 2014-2030,” “The Coast Guard and Navy are committed to ensuring safe, secure, and environmentally responsible maritime activity in Arctic Ocean waters and to promoting our other national interests in the Region.”

“The Navy and Coast Guard have a decades-long history of cooperation and collaboration. The two services have worked together in close partnership during times of war and peace to protect our Nation’s ports and waterways and to promote our maritime security interests overseas. The history of this collaboration between the two sea services acknowledges the distinctive missions, competencies, and cultures of each service,” the roadmap stated. “The combined efforts of the Navy and the Coast Guard in the Arctic Ocean will reflect this historic relationship. …”

Zukunft made a commitment to partner with the Navy to establish an Integrated Program Office (IPO) to acquire new heavy icebreakers. “This approach leverages the expertise of both organizations and is delivering results,” Zukunft wrote in congressional testimony in May 2017. “The recent award of multiple Industry Studies contracts – a concept the Navy has utilized in previous shipbuilding acquisitions to drive affordability and reduce schedule and technical risk – is an example of the positive results of this partnership. We will continue refining the system specification and prepare to release a request for proposal for Detail Design and Construction in FY 2018.”

The IPO was established to best utilize the experience of both services to oversee the accelerated construction of heavy polar icebreakers and rebuild this critical national capability.

Icebreaker hull-testing

A model icebreaker hull (background) maneuvers to free a beset vessel during a test at the National Research Council of Canada’s facility in St. John’s, Newfoundland, July 26, 2017. The test showcased the progress made on the testing and evaluation of design models for the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaker acquisition program, which is being supported by an international, multiagency team. U.S. Navy photo by Stephen Minnich

According to Brian Olexy, a spokesman for the Coast Guard’s Acquisition Directorate, the IPO will leverage existing designs and mature technologies to mitigate schedule and cost risks using a strategy based on robust industry collaboration and competition leading to award of a contract for detail design and construction. The IPO is emphasizing responsible acceleration by incorporating proven concepts. “The arrangement complies with congressional guidance to leverage Navy involvement for this acquisition program, and maximizes the Coast Guard’s ability to use best practices from the Navy and other shipbuilding programs.”

The IPO is staffed by members of both services, and led via an integrated leadership team. The Coast Guard serves as the technical authority but with Navy IPO staff members providing consultation services where they are subject-matter experts in program management, contracting, budgeting, ship design, and other areas. “They contribute as active, embedded members of the IPO and ship design team with direct management functions and responsibilities and participate in program and technical decisions,” Olexy said.

This is not the first time the Coast Guard and Navy partnered in an acquisition program, said Olexy. “The medium icebreaker Healy was acquired under a similar Navy-Coast Guard IPO arrangement.


Model of success

Representatives from the Coast Guard; DHS Science and Technology Directorate; Naval Sea Systems Command; Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division; and the National Research Council Canada (NRC) have met at NRC’s St. John’s, Newfoundland, ice-test facility to discuss the testing and evaluation of potential designs for the icebreaker acquisition program.

“This collaboration benefits both countries as they engage in vital research and development to improve the technology of ice breaking ships,” stated NRC President Iain Stewart in July 2017. “Our knowledge of how ships and offshore structures can operate in harsh environmental conditions combined with our world-class research facilities and expertise positions Canada as a strategic partner in providing safety and efficiency to the new U.S. polar icebreakers.”

Canadian icebreakers

The Canadian Coast Guard has four medium and two heavy icebreakers, all over 10,000 tons, but all 30 years old or more, as well as other vessels able to work in ice.
At this time, with the exception of the new polar icebreaker CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, no new building plans have been approved for the replacement of these icebreakers. Canadian Coast Guard photo

NRC’s St. John’s facilities are home to one of the largest ice test tanks in the world, used to measure the performance and evaluate the hydrodynamic properties and safety of ice-going ships and structures. The ice tank can create realistic model environments to simulate first-year and multiyear ice, pack ice, ridged ice, and glacial ice.

“Model testing activities enable us to examine critical design elements and make informed design decisions early in the acquisition process,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Michael J. Haycock, assistant commandant for acquisition and chief acquisition officer. “The data we gather from model testing at the NRC is going to be a major driver of our heavy polar icebreaker acquisition program’s success and will be critical to our efforts to effectively manage costs, mitigate risks, and maintain an accelerated program schedule.”

Neil Meister, the Coast Guard’s technical director of the polar icebreaker replacement project, said building a heavy icebreaker is something that happens once in a generation. “These are considered national strategic assets. What we’re making is essentially a steel fist that has to last for decades and be able to float, run into things, meet our national mission needs, and operate at 40 below zero. These ships do a lot of crazy things that most ships don’t do. The capabilities we are building into the replacement reflect that.”

“Modeling capabilities such as the breakout of a beset vessel is a complex phenomenon that is challenging to predict numerically,” said Stephen Minnich, a naval architect at Carderock. “The powering requirement for the ice breaking mission is an important design and cost driver that ice testing helps to predict. In addition to helping the IPO understand the design trade space, access to this type of facility and expertise through this collaboration is an incredible learning opportunity for our scientists and engineers.”



Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...