Rethinking Polar Sea–Another Alternative–Renovate, Simplify, Make Her Arctic Station Ship

USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB-11): US Coast Guard Photo
The question of whether the Polar Sea should be reactivated has been kicking around for a while. After all, the Navy and the Coast Guard have been saying the country needs three heavy and three medium icebreakers. The proposed new icebreaker is projected to cost about $1B and will not increase the size of our icebreaker fleet. It will simply arrive in time to replace the Polar Star. The renovation of the Polar Sea was projected to cost on the order of $100M and provide seven to ten years of additional life. If you compare that to $1B for 30 years for a new icebreaker that sounds like a good trade-off, so why not?
FierceHomelandSecurity is reporting that the Coast Guard has told Congress they can do without her,
“Although a second heavy icebreaker would provide redundancy, the cost of this redundant capability would come at the expense of more pressing and immediate operational demands.
This is the conclusion of a report to Congress entitled “USCGC Polar Sea Business Case Analysis” dated November 07, 2013, that I will refer to simply as the analysis. download (pdf): Their summarized findings:

“A total of 43 mission critical systems in five general categories were assessed and assigned a condition rating. Overall, Propulsion, Auxiliary and Prime Mission Equipment are rated Poor to Fair, while Structure and Habitability are rated Fair to Good. POLAR SEA reactivation is estimated to cost $99.2 million (excluding annual operations and support costs) to provide 7-10 years of service to the Coast Guard. Given the age of the icebreaker, operations and support costs are projected to rise from $36.6 million in the first year of operation to $52.8 million in the tenth year of operation. Combining reactivation costs and point estimates for operating costs, reactivation would cost $573.9 million. Accounting for operational and technical uncertainties, using a 90% Confidence Level Risk Analysis, the total potential cost rises to $751.7 million.

“Arctic seasonal icebreaking demands through 2022 can be met with existing and planned Coast Guard assets, as current requirements do not justify the need for heavy icebreaking capability in the Arctic. Heavy icebreaker capability is needed to perform Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica, but Coast Guard assets may not be the only option available to the National Science Foundation to support this activity. Although a second heavy icebreaker would provide redundancy, the cost of this redundant capability would come at the expense of more pressing and immediate operational demands. POLAR STAR, when fully reactivated, will provide heavy icebreaker capability until a new icebreaker can be delivered to meet both current and emerging requirements.”

It does not take much reading between the lines to see that the real issue here is not the one time renovation cost, it is the high annual cost of maintaining a complex plant that is increasingly unsupportable. Congress might fund the renovation costs, but the annual maintenance costs are likely to be taken out of hide and the projected $36.6M to $52.8M per year is just too much for the increased capability. The conclusion that restoring her to her original configuration is not a viable option is probably reasonable, but it is the only alternative. Because

Polar Sea’s basic structure is sound. Quoting the analysis,

“Based on the results of the inspection, the structure is rated EXCELLENT and the average remaining service life for the structure remains 25+ years. No significant wastage or corrosion was noted and no major repairs have been necessary since the last report.”

Maine Engines and Propellers:

The Polar Class have always been “maintenance intensive” and a good part of the reason is the complexity of her nine engine propulsion system and her controlable pitch propellers (CPP).
The complexity of her six diesel engines and three gas turbines is rather self explanatory. That they are now old and virtually unsupportable makes the problems even more obvious, but the propellers merit additional explanation. Quoting from the analysis (p.16),
“The CPPs are rated POOR.

“The following discussion is quoted from the Polar Service Life Extension Project (SLEP), Option A, Scope and Feasibility Analysis submitted by M. Rosenblatt and Son! AMSEC LLC, May 2006 and is an excellent description of the challenges that still confront the CPP system: Controllable Pitch Propellers and Associated Hydraulic Systems. This remains the most significant problem that must be solved if the cutters are to continue to provide reliable service. The propellers are subject to particularly severe conditions during heavy icebreaking conditions and a significant failure may lead to cancellation of a mission, as well as presenting the potential for leakage of hydraulic fluid to the environment. There are issues relating both to the propeller hubs themselves and the internal hydraulic system components. The following discussion will continue to address the propeller hubs separately from the rest of the CPP system for three reasons: 1) their current condition is  different than the rest of the system, 2) the likelihood for a known fix is different, and 3) the propeller hubs cannot be repaired while the ship is deployed or while in the water which vastly impacts operational availability.
“Propeller Hubs. The hubs are rated POOR. In recent years, it has been necessary to dry dock the cutters and inspect the propeller hubs after every heavy icebreaking deployment. Throughout the 50 years of experience with the two Polar Class ships, the interval between hub overhauls has never been more than two heavy icebreaking missions. According to the Coast Guard Technical Point of Contact for the CPP hub overhaul contract, every time the hubs have been overhauled there has been some unusual wear, scoring, cracking, leaking, broken parts or other indicator that it was appropriate that the hubs be overhauled before an additional heavy icebreaking mission was attempted. In other words, there has been no indication that overhauls were unnecessarily being performed at too short an interval. Over the past 25 years, dozens of modifications have been made to the hubs attempting to eliminate the negative conditions found. Typically corrections in one spot have lead to new symptoms in another location. Sizes, clearances, and material strengths are in critical balance. While the hubs have undoubtedly been improved over the past 25 years, their service life without overhaul remains relatively short.
Overall Condition:
The following is the “Reader’s Digest” version of the Analysis’ report on the summary of the ship’s condition:
Overall main propulsion system
Main propulsion diesel engines
Controllable Pitch Propellers (CPP)
Ship Service Diesel Engine
Uncontaminated Seawater System
Electrical distribution system (parts and technical support)
Cargo Cranes
Propulsion Gas Generators and Turbines
Propulsion Control System: Switchgear, Rectifiers, and Exciters
Machinery Control and Monitoring System (MCAMS)
Ship Service Diesel Generator (SSDG)
Steering Gear
Ventilation System
Fire Main and Flushing (Seawater) System
Sanitary Systems
Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) Systems
Central Hydraulic System (CHS)
Anchor Windlass
Bus transfer switches
Electrical distribution system (preservation).
Propulsion Generators
Aft Stem Tube Bearings (as yet untested)
Forward Stem Tube Bearings
Cooper Split Roller Bearing
Lube Oil Purifiers
Oily Water Separator
Fresh Water Systems
Chilled Water System
Halon Systems
400 Hz Switchboard
Electrical distribution system (mechanical)
Reduction Gears
Propulsion Shafting
Thrust Bearing
Emergency Diesel Generator (EDG)
Auxiliary Boilers
Helicopter Power Supply
Local Monitoring & Alarm System
Diesel Fuel Transfer & Purification System
Boat Davits
Electronics systems
Outfit and spares
An Opportunity in the form of a Problem:
The Coast Guard has been using a National Security Cutter over the last two summers to provide the equivalent of a Coast Guard Section afloat in the absence of infrastructure ashore, effectively a helicopter airstation, a small boat station, communications, and command and control. These very expensive ships certainly have a number of desirable characteristics, but they are hardly what one would envision if planning an Arctic station ship from scratch. The hull is simply not strong enough for the environment. Not only is it not an icebreaker, it is not even ice strengthened.
If we take advantage of the Polar Sea’s still robust hull, by spending more money up front (Congress would have to appropriate it, it could not come out of hide) and replace the engineering plant with good choices that both reduce manning and increase reliability, we might have effectively an additional medium icebreaker for up to 25 years.
Yes, it would take more planning and more money up front, but with a bit of redesign and reconstruction it appears the Coast Guard could have an icebreaker of at least 18,000 horsepower with fixed pitch props that could be tailored for an Arctic Station Ship role freeing the NSCs and/or the Polar Star for more normal patrol functions. The six main prop diesel generators could be replaced by perhaps three modern diesel generators, and the three turbines removed altogether. Used as main propulsion generators, three MTU 20V 1163 diesels like the ones on the Bertholf Class would allow any two engines to drive the three existing electric motors at full power. Allowing the existing motors to run in reverse would probably require a new propulsion control system, but the existing system is only rated as fair now anyway. A new digital system would almost certainly be more flexible and easier to maintain and would probably require fewer watch standers. 18,000 horsepower using the existing motors, is way down from her current designed combined diesel and gas turbine output, is more than many of the world’s icebreakers, and more than either of the National Science Foundation’s icebreakers. If more power were deemed essential, it might be possible to put one LM2500 on the center shaft and still get the benefits of a greatly simplified and modernized engineering plant. The Ship Service electrical system might also be updated to provide the capability for one generator to handle the entire load, something the ship does not currently have. It might even be possible to add retractable fin stabilizers (removal of the turbines having made more room in the hull) or at least a rudder roll stabilization system added (the rudders system does need work). Stabilization is desirable in that it would allow her to operate boats and helicopters in more severe conditions.
By re-engining the Polar Sea, the Coast Guard would not only get a more reliable ship, requiring a smaller crew, potentially cheaper to operate than a National Security Cutter, it would also leave free up the Polar Sea’s existing engines and propellers and possibly other systems to use as spares to keep Polar Star functional and free her from duties in the Arctic.

37 thoughts on “Rethinking Polar Sea–Another Alternative–Renovate, Simplify, Make Her Arctic Station Ship

  1. Once you start tearing into these cutters to refurb them, add in the additional cost of the asbestos abatement $$$.

    $enator Patty’s office will soon be making the hard case to spend the million$ on Polar $ea.
    After all, she has a 2016 election coming up and many union vote$ on the Seattle waterfront to bribe with Polar $ea money!

    Maybe she’ll find the money by offering to cut some more military pay and benefits.

  2. Instead of three 20-cylinder high-speed engines, I’d probably go for medium-speed generating sets. While they are a bit heavier, they are also more fuel-efficient and generally considered more reliable. Also, I’d get rid of the auxiliary engines and go for a fully integrated power plant where the main generators supply power for all shipboard consumers.

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  4. simply stated: the bad FAR outweighs the good. Especially since their are other ships in the US sealift inventory which do perform as station ships not necessarily just in Arctic.

    When one gets into this older out of service ships, the cost escalate but at least 25%. I see MANY main propulsion and auxiliary systems on the down side of that list.

    • Yes main prop and auxiliaries are not in good shape, they would have to be replaced. It would not be cheap, but done wisely, it could give us a reasonably economical and capable icebreaker, something we are currently short of.

      Using other types of ships, including possibly MSC manned, to support operations in the Arctic, is something the Coast Guard should probably look at.

  5. It’s sad and I hate to see her sitting unused, but this falls back to my point about CG re-organization and realignment. If the large icebreakers were given to NOAA, they’d be better taken care of. DHS and, to a lessor extent, CG leadership will always short-change these assets when shrinking money availability forces tough budget decisions.

      • Here is what was reported by the German Navy site Marine Forum:
        Japanese navy icebreaker SHIRASE has run aground on an underwater rock in the Antarctic Ocean … small water leak contained, no fuel leaks, no injuries … first attempts to get it off on high tide failed … had picked up research teams from Antarctic stations.

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  7. DefenseOne has a status report on the Coast Guard’s Icebreaker capability. Not much new here except to report continued congressional interest in bringing the Polar Sea back on line. If these numbers are right, “Repairing and reactivating the Polar Sea for another seven to 10 years of service would take three years and cost about $100 million. A new icebreaker designed to last 30 years would cost $852 million,” putting the old girl back in service makes sense.

    • Polar icebreakers face one of the harshest operating conditions on this planet and the country that once put a man on the moon is going to tackle it with a 40-year-old ship that has a long history of mechanical problems due to its overly complex propusion system. America, you disappoint me.

      I still don’t understand how they can make the icebreaker so expensive and why it takes so long to get one. I mean, it’s five times as expensive as the icebreaker we just ordered. Sure, ours is not as strong and powerful as the Polar-class icebreakers, but it can still break six feet thick ice with just one third of the power and is intended to remain in service for 50 years. It took about half a year to develop the concept to a level sufficient for signing the shipbuilding contract and it will take less than two years to complete the design work AND build the vessel.

  8. I see Polar Star is in Dry Dock for some very extensive work on all three of her props. These have always seemed a weak point. Perhaps another reason for a renovation rather than repair of Polar Sea.

    • Since there has been no news about bringing the Polar Sea back to service, I can think of two alternatives for dry-docking:
      – fixing a leaking propeller shaft seal
      – scavenging parts for Polar Star

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    • IMO, the USCG should try to refurbish the Polar Star and milk another decade out of her. The problem, which the commandant refers to, is that if you’re going to build big icebreakers, building on at a time is not an efficient way to do it. the yards will have to invest in equipment to build the icebreaker, so if you want competitive bids, you need to order more than one.

      But the OPC and Webber class are a far higher priority given the age of the fleet. I don’t think tackling the icebreaker issue while the fleet recapitalization is half complete is going to end well for the USCG.

      It’s not the right thing to do, but it’s the politically smart thing to do. Just punt, get the fleet recapitalized, then deal with it.

      • I think there are already shipyards in the US capable of building an icebreaker. You only need capability to bend plates into complex shapes (double curvature) as well as welding high-strength steel.

      • The problem is that it will take until 2033 to build the OPCs at the currently planned rate. We really cannot wait that long to build new icebreakers. The annual AC&I budget really needs to be about $1B greater. If we did that we could build the icebreakers while building the OPCs. Only other alternative is separate funding for the icebreakers.

        I do question why the icebreakers have to be so large when we successfully supported both Antarctic bases and the building of the DEW line in the Arctic with only Wind class and the Glacier.

      • Well, it’s true that the Polar class has about twice the displacement of the Wind class…

        How big your icebreaker will be depends largely on where you want it to be able to go, how long you want it to stay there, and what you want it to be able to do once it gets there. However, there are other factors as well that make icebreakers very weight-critical and difficult to design – it’s easy to fail if you don’t know what you’re doing and even experience from operating icebreakers (as the Russians have found out) does not mean that you can’t fail with the weight calculations.

        Icebreakers, due to their specialized hull form, tend to have relatively small block coefficients (the ratio between displacement and the product of the three main dimensions). This makes them appear big even though the displacement is quite modest. At the same time, the hull needs to be strong to withstand the ice, increasing steel weight. Being vessels of considerable power, icebreakers need heavy power plants and, since they are operating far from civilization, large fuel tanks and redundancy in the form of multiple propellers and engines. There is some weak positive feedback as ice resistance depends particularly on the beam of the vessel, and increasing the machinery weight increases ship size, which in turn requires more displacement and so on. Then you need sufficient clearance around the propellers, but at the same time they need to be as big as possible to absorb all that power, can’t extend below the baseline etc. Furthermore, in these days you can’t have fuel tanks against the side of the ship, which has some effect on the size of the vessel…

        All this basically means that with given operational requirements there is usually some minimum size and power, and that’s of course where we are aiming at while designing such vessel. However, if the vessel is too big for your budget, then you need to start striking stuff from your wish list.

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  14. “Crowley’s government ship management group was awarded a contract for the technical management of USCG cutter Polar Sea (WAGB 11) – one of the world’s most powerful, conventionally propelled icebreakers – during the ship’s layup. Though the Polar Sea has been out of service since 2010, Crowley is handling any towing, dry docking, repair, deactivation and layup duties required for the vessel.”

      • It is never going to last as long as a new ship, but I think we are between a rock and a hard place right now. We really need another icebreaker before 2027 or whenever the new one will come out and we will continue to need more than we have for probably another 20 years. I really think the Navy could contract for and complete a major renovation in less than five years. Even if we could not make it as powerful as it was, it could still be very useful as a mobile base in the Arctic.

      • If we can spend two years and FRAM it and add 20 years to the life of the ship it would be worth it IMHO

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