gCaptain reports that Edison-Chouest is building another icebreaker (Anchor Handling Tug Supply (AHTS) ship), with an option for a second. Another gCaptain post appears to indicate that they are in fact building two.
These vessels appear to be similar to the earlier M/V Aiviq.
If I read the report correctly, each ship will have Four 5060 KW generators. If so these ships will each have more horsepower (20,240 KW/27,131 SHP) than the diesel electric engines of the Polar class (18,000 HP), more than the Glacier (16,000 KW/21,000 SHP), and almost as much as the Healy (22,400 KW/30,027 SHP). They will be more than twice as powerful as the Wind class breakers (12,000 SHP), the National Science Foundation’s leased M/V Nathaniel B. Palmer (9,485 kW/12,720 HP), or USCGC Mackinaw (6,800 KW/9,119 SHP). They will also be more powerful than all but one of Canada’s icebreakers
They will be Polar Class 3. Polar class 3 means “Year-round operation in second-year ice which may include multiyear ice inclusions.” It appears we might be seeing the emergence of a whole class of privately owned American medium icebeakers.
Researching this, I found reference to two similar, if perhaps less capable, Class 4 icebreakers, both built in 1983 in Canada, as commercial AHTS vessels, one, CCGS Terry Fox, is now used by the Canadian Coast Guard, and her sister ship, Vladimir Ignatyuk, is now owned by Russia’s Murmansk Shipping Company and was chartered by the National Science Foundation to lead the break-in to McMurdo sound two seasons, during the Antarctic summers of 2011/12 and 2012/13.
So far I have seen no indication of official Coast Guard interest in filling the stated requirement for three medium icebreakers. These ships do not have the redundancy we would like in a our ships. But that could be fixed. Plus lower cost might allow a different kind of redundancy, assigning two ships to the task rather than only one, allowing an organic Coast Guard self rescue capability that the Commandant has pointed out is missing with our current very limited icebreaker fleet. If the cost of these is similar to that of the M/V Aiviq ($200M, 16,240 KW/21,760 HP), even after upgrades to meet Coast Guard requirements, e.g. flight deck, hangar, communications, etc., and additional overhead that are included in Coast Guard procurement cost, we should be able to build a medium Icebreaker of similar capability for a third the $1B cost of a heavy icebreaker.
Is a medium icebreaker sufficient for our needs? We already have a documented requirement for three medium icebreakers in addition to three heavy icebreakers compared with the current fleet of one each. In a Defense News interview the Commandant pointed out, “First of all, it’s heavy ice breaking capability. Last year the Polar Star had to rescue a medium ice breaker from China. Just before they arrived, the wind shifted and they were able to get out on their own. Clearly, [that] is no place for a medium ice breaker. It does require heavy ice-breaking capability.” While I would never suggest that a Heavy icebreaker is not desirable, in fact the MV Xue Long (Snow Dragon) is more ice strengthened cargo ship than icebreaker with a large hull (21,025 tons) and relatively weak engines (13,200 KW/17,694 HP) and would be considered by the Coast Guard a light polar breaker (less than 20,000 HP). Historically the Operation Deepfreeze break-in has been done most frequently by ships we would now classify as medium or light icebreakers.
If you look at this chart, prepared by the Coast Guard, in 2013, of the 78 icebreakers of over 10,000 HP, operated by 17 countries, only eight of them were Heavy icebreakers (=>45,000 SHP). 34 were medium icebreakers of 20,000 to less than 45,000 HP, and 36 were smaller icebreakers of 10,000 to less than 20,000 HP. Interestingly, in addition to five heavy icebreakers, four medium, and two smaller icebreakers have managed to make it to the North Pole.
Even if funding can be found for a new heavy icebreaker, by the time it is built, we will again have only one heavy icebreaker (unless Polar Sea is reactivated), because the Polar Star will almost certainly be out of service by the time it enters service. We really need to consider alternatives to give us the numbers we need in the not too distant future. Apparently there is agreement we need at least two more medium icebreakers in addition to USCGC Healy. Getting them into the budget looks a lot more do able than a $1B heavy icebreaker, and far, far easier than two Heavies.