Obstacles Ahead for U.S. Icebreakers

Polar StarU.S. Coast Guard icebreaker ships hammer their way through sheets of ice to access remote ice-covered oceans.

That’s a key capability if you want to get to the ends of the Earth, and that is part of their mission. Bodies of water in the polar regions—Arctic and Antarctic—remain ice-covered for the majority of the year and the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for providing the nation with access to them. Duties include providing fuel and other supplies to the McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica, as well as advancing U.S. interests.

Today’s WatchBlog takes a look at how well the Coast Guard’s icebreakers are keeping up with demands for their services, and sizes up some potential obstacles ahead.

The Icebreakers

The Coast Guard is down to two active polar icebreakers. There are actually three ships in the polar icebreaking fleet—the Polar Star, Polar Sea, and Healy—but the Polar Sea suffered massive engine failure in June 2010 and has not been active since.

Figure 4: U.S. Coast Guard’s Icebreakers, the Polar Star and Healy

If there’s a star in this fleet right now, it’s the Polar Star, a heavy icebreaker that is the world’s most powerful active non-nuclear icebreaker. It is capable of ramming through ice 21 feet thick and operating year-round in both polar regions.

The Healy, a medium icebreaker, cannot access the Antarctic year-round or some of the Arctic in winter because it cannot make it through more than 4½ feet of ice. It primarily supports Arctic research.

A little creaky

The Polar Star first set sail in the mid-1970s, and the Healy in 1999. The Coast Guard projects that the Polar Star’s service life will end in 2023 and the Healy’s by 2030.

Figure 1: USCG’s Polar Icebreakers and Expected Service Lines

This fleet has degraded a bit in recent years. From fiscal 2010-2013, the heavy icebreakers were inactive due to maintenance needs. Partially due to the ships’ unavailability, the Coast Guard was unable to fulfill all of its polar icebreaking requests during fiscal years 2010-2016—completing 78% (25 of 32) of them.

An accelerated icebreaker replacement process? 

The Coast Guard partnered with the Navy in 2013 and initiated an acquisition program for three heavy icebreakers, the first of which is estimated to cost about $1 billion. However, we found that the Coast Guard may not be able to meet its schedule and acquire a heavy icebreaker by 2023.

Facing a potential gap in its ability to maintain heavy icebreaking capability, the Coast Guard plans to extend the service life of the Polar Star until its new icebreakers arrive. However, it has not produced a sound estimate of the cost of doing that.

We recommended the Coast Guard complete a comprehensive cost estimate for a life extension of the Polar Star that follows cost estimating best practices before committing to this approach.

Learn more here about the Coast Guard’s polar icebreaker acquisition program and other efforts to ensure the service can meet requests for polar icebreaking operations.


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