In a not too distant past, the Arctic Ocean was a predictably impenetrable ice mass during winter. Today it is neither impenetrable nor predictable.
The once solid frozen barrier to the approaches to America’s northern border now has large areas of ice-free water for much of the year, inviting shippers attracted by shortcuts between Asia and Europe, fishermen looking to operate farther north, tourists traveling to see the once inaccessible region, and mineral, oil and gas exploration.
According to the commander of both U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, U.S. Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the far north is a region of strategic importance. “The Arctic is the first line of defense,” he said.
O’Shaughnessy said that enforcing a “rules-based international order” is at the forefront of U.S. policy. But the security implications of a warming Arctic are clear: “The U.S. homeland is no longer a sanctuary.”
Less ice means more access, which will result in more human activity. And that means the Coast Guard needs an increased presence in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
Arctic Strategic Outlook
“As the region continues to open, and strategic competition drives more actors to look to the Arctic for economic and geopolitical advantages, the demand for Coast Guard leadership and presence will continue to grow,” states the Coast Guard’s Arctic Strategic Outlook, released in April 2019.
The strategy calls for three lines of effort. The first is to enhance the capability to operate effectively in a dynamic Arctic. The Coast Guard is already vested with the appropriate missions and authorities, and has developed the appropriate partnerships, but the service recognizes that its capability and capacity to fulfill those missions must be enhanced to uphold American sovereignty and deliver mission excellence. The second line of effort is to strengthen the rules-based order and prevent malign influence in the Arctic. Third, the Coast Guard must innovate and adapt to promote resilience and prosperity.
According to the strategy, “Each line of effort depends on Partnership, Unity of Effort, and a Culture of Innovation to succeed. Partnership and Unity of Effort, whether it is with NATO allies or with Alaska Native partners, are preconditions for success in the complex, modern Arctic domain. A Culture of Innovation will be needed to overcome not just the technical challenges, but also the political and fiscal challenges to operating in the Arctic.”
“In order to prosecute its missions in the Arctic, the Coast Guard must fully understand and operate freely in this vast and unforgiving environment. Effective capability requires sufficient heavy icebreaking vessels, reliable high-latitude communications, and comprehensive Maritime Domain Awareness. In order to respond to crises in the Arctic, our nation must also muster adequate personnel, aviation, and logistics resources in the region. The Coast Guard is the sole provider and operator of the U.S. polar capable fleet but currently does not have the capability or capacity to assure access in the high latitudes,” the strategy said. “Closing the gap requires persistent investment in capabilities and capacity for polar operations, including the Polar Security Cutter (PSC).”
In the Arctic region, the Coast Guard is the lead federal agency for homeland security, safety, and environmental stewardship. But the Alaskan Arctic is vast, sparsely populated, and has little infrastructure. Most communities can only be reached by air, and possibly by boat or barge in the summer months. The winter is long, dark and cold. In order to enhance maritime domain awareness, facilitate governance and promote partnerships to meet security and safety needs in this geo-strategically and economically vital area, the Coast Guard must be present and capable of operating wherever needed.
In his annual State of the Coast Guard Address in Los Angeles in March 2019, Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Karl Schultz said the Arctic and Antarctic hold vast resources, and aspiring near-peer competitors – such as China and Russia – are expanding their icebreaker fleets as well as their bases, access, and influence. “My greatest concern for these regions lies with America’s very limited icebreaking fleet. Currently, our nation has only two operational icebreakers – one medium and one heavy. And, our heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, is 43 years old and well past her service life. Having recently returned from Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica – the most remote and unforgiving environment on the planet – Polar Star’s crew successfully broke through dozens of miles of ice to resupply our American colleagues and international partners at McMurdo Station – the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic program. Without this American presence on the continent, we cede future influence in the region. In the Polar Regions, presence absolutely equals influence! However, our presence is harder to maintain with each passing year. In the midst of her successful deployment, the Polar Star broke her centerline shaft seal due to the stress of ice operations, allowing water to flood into the ship.”
Schultz commended the dedication and tenacity of Polar Star’s crew to fix the problem. “Hundreds of miles from the nearest safe port, a joint Coast Guard and Navy dive team braved the icy ocean to apply a patch that slowed the flooding. Meanwhile engineers – immersed in 30-degree bilge water and using specialized tools fabricated onboard, successfully repaired the ship. Every year I observe this type of innovation and dedication to mission excellence from the men and women aboard the Polar Star.”
Schultz said this was an example of why the PSC acquisition is so critical to our national security and prosperity in the high-latitudes.
“This is not lost on the administration and the United States Congress, who provided the remaining $675 million dollars to fully fund the first Polar Security Cutter and provided the initial long lead materials for the second Polar Security Cutter,” Schultz said. “As we build these new icebreakers, I will continue to advocate for what I call the ‘6-3-1 Approach.’ We need six icebreakers, at least three of which must be Polar Security Cutters, and today, I am proud to say we will award the construction contract this spring (2019) for our first one.”
New Icebreaker Cannot Arrive Too Soon
“Polar Star, when it’s running with all three engines up on line, and the communications with the computer working, it is an incredible icebreaker,” said Capt. Michael Davanzo, chief of the Office of Cutter Forces. “But it’s very limited in what it can do outside of breaking ice.”
To replace the remaining icebreakers, the Coast Guard embarked upon the Polar Icebreaker (PIB) program, but later changed the name to Polar Security Cutter to more accurately describe the multi-mission capability of the ship. The PSC program will update the service’s icebreaking fleet with three new heavy polar icebreakers, followed by up to three new medium polar icebreakers.
Davanzo said the new ship must be able to launch and recover boats and aircraft, both manned and unmanned, and perform virtually all of the Coast Guard’s missions, including law enforcement, aids to navigation, search and rescue, marine safety, vessel inspections, living resources management, marine security, ports and waterways and coastal security, and national defense.
The Navy and Coast Guard have a joint program office to procure the PSC. VT Halter Marine of Pascagoula, Mississippi, has been awarded the contract to design and build the first PSC, with options for two more. The first ship is scheduled for delivery in 2024, with the second in 2025 and third in 2027 if the options are executed. The shipyard’s design partner is Technology Associates, Inc. (TAI) of New Orleans, Louisiana, which based the PSC design on the Polar Stern II, a new icebreaker built in Germany for the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research.
The PSC will meet the requirements of an International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) “Polar Class 2” vessel, capable of breaking ice between six to eight feet thick, and “able to conduct year-round operations in moderate multi-year ice conditions.” But unlike most icebreakers, it will have to transit from its homeport in Seattle to McMurdo Sound, passing through equatorial waters, and will require extensive cooling systems that most icebreakers don’t need.
At 460 feet in length and a full load displacement of about 33,000 long tons, the PSC will be substantially larger that Polar Star (399 feet, 13,000 tons) or Healy (420 feet, 16,000 tons).
Healy is an impressive icebreaker – it was the first surface vessel to reach the North Pole unaccompanied – but it is a scientific research platform that also happens to be a medium icebreaker. And while younger than the Polar Sea and Polar Star, it is nevertheless 20 years old.
A pressing mission for the new heavy icebreaker will be the job of opening the channel to “break out” McMurdo Sound for the annual resupply –Operation Deep Freeze – at the McMurdo Base in Antarctica. But it will be equally at home in any polar waters.
But the PSC won’t be just a more capable Polar Star or Healy. “We’re building a new type of ship,” said Martin Mardiros, Polar Security Cutter Ship Design Manager. “Icebreaking is just getting access to operate and conduct the missions we need.”
The remoteness of the Arctic and Antarctic regions requires that the PSC to be self-sufficient during mission execution and capable of long transits between logistical stops. In terms of icing, the PSC is expected to encounter first-year ice averaging about 6 feet thick in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
According to the Arctic Strategic Outlook, “In order to conduct the full range of Coast Guard missions, Coast Guard icebreakers must be fully interoperable with interagency and international stakeholders, including the Department of Defense (DOD), to carry out national defense operations. Thus, the new PSC will include sufficient space, weight, and power to conduct the full complement of multi-mission activities that support our nation’s current and future needs in the Arctic.”
The Department of Defense June 2019 Arctic Strategy said that DOD will continue to support the PSC program, as it provides a key capability to ensure interoperability between Coast Guard and Navy vessels and to support U.S. presence in the Arctic region.
The Coast Guard’s vision for the Arctic is a cooperative environment that balances the needs and requirements of the region’s diverse group of stakeholders. Ray especially stressed the importance of working with, and listening to, the native Alaskan communities. “Anything that we do in the Arctic or Polar regions in general requires a collaborative effort.”
Ray pointed to a number of initiatives, such as the Arctic Council, Arctic Coast Guard Forum, and Pacific Coast Guard Forum, where the U.S. can cooperate with the other nations on matters of mutual interest. But America must have a visible presence of its own. “We are much better off as a nation when we operate in coordination with other nations that have similar interests there,” Ray said.
“The center of gravity of what we need to do as an Arctic nation is capability, and capability provides presence,” said Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Robert Ray, speaking at the American Society of Naval Engineers Arctic Day symposium in September. “Diplomacy, governance and regulations – all that is interesting conversation if you don’t have presence in the Arctic region.”