Will the Navy Be Funding and Managing Our Next Icebreaker Procurement?


Azipods, state of the art propulsion technology for icebreakers. 

The Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee has proposed that $1B be added to the Navy’s shipbuilding budget for the construction of an icebreaker for the Coast Guard.

This sounds like good news, and there is precedence for this, in the form of USCGC Healy. Still, there are reasons, this may not be the best approach for the project, for the Coast Guard, or for the Navy, particularly since this should not be a one time procurement, it should be the first of a series.

The Navy contracted for the Healy and it did not turn out so badly, but there were difficulties as discussed here.

There are really two issues.

  • Who gets the money?
  • Who should manage the project?

Who gets the money?

The Coast Guard has been trying to get the government to recognize that it needs an AC&I budget of $2-2.5B/year. It needs to be a new norm. Funding icebreakers is part of that. Putting the money in the Navy budget is deceptive, and it does nothing to address the true needs of the Coast Guard..

Because of sequestration it is easier to add money to a DOD budget than to the Coast Guard budget, but if they can make exceptions for one military service, you would think they could make an exception for the Coast Guard as well.

Who would be the best project manager?

The Coast Guard got a black eye for the Deepwater project, but that was largely the result of a misguided Reagan era directive that project management be outsourced to the private sector that was followed by a gutting of in-house expertise in DOD as well as the Coast Guard. NAVSEA also lost much of its in house expertise. Since then, the Coast Guard’s Acquisitions Directorate has been rebuilt into an award winning organization. In fact, while I don’t necessarily think it is true, the GAO has suggested that the Coast Guard’s procedures may be superior to those of the Navy.

The Coast Guard has been preparing for this acquisition for years. If the Navy is to manage it, the Coast Guard will have to spend time bringing them up to speed.

There is also the question of who will procure the follow-on icebreakers. We have been saying we need three heavy and three medium icebreakers. the Coast Guard needs to continue to increase its icebreaker procurement expertise to build these vessels as well.

If the project is given to NAVSEA, it may be low on their priority list. NAVSEA is currently building or planning:

If NAVSEA were to divert their personnel from these projects to the procurement of an icebreaker, it would hurt supervision of these projects.

All of these projects are far larger than construction of one icebreaker. So, if they are given the icebreaker project, will they put their best people on it? Do they have any icebreaker expertise? Will they have to hire new people who will need to go through a time consuming clearance process and take the time to be brought up to speed?

NAVSEA may want to do their own lengthy and costly study & review process. They may impose requirements that the Coast Guard would not. These would add to the cost and these costs would likely be added on to any future icebreakers that would probably be built to the same design.

A troubling “encouragement”:

There was a particularly troubling requirement quoted on page 31 of the  Congressional Research Service’s report, “Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress.” from the FY2017 DOD Appropriations Act (S. 3000) apparently from pages 98-99.

“While the effort to speed polar icebreaker acquisition by 2 years is commendable, the Committee believes more must be done now to expand our capabilities and to defend interests in the Polar Regions. In addition to concerns about our current fleet, the Committee notes that Russia has roughly 40 operational icebreakers and 11 icebreakers either planned or under construction. Therefore, to further accelerate production, the Committee recommends $1,000,000,000 in the “Shipbuilding and Conversion, Navy” account to construct domestically the first U.S. Coast Guard operated ship for the Polar Icebreaker Recapitalization Project. In order to achieve an earlier start on this project and to reduce cost and schedule risk, the Committee encourages the selection of an in-service U.S. hull design and the setting of limitations on overall ship specifications and requirements. The Committee directs the Secretary of Defense in coordination with the Secretary of Homeland Security to submit a report to the appropriate congressional committees not later than September 30, 2016 which provides polar icebreaker requirements, preferred design, overall acquisition strategy, and a breakout of funds necessary to support the acquisition.”

I find the direction to forego an opportunity to improve on the designs we have, in favor of decades old hull designs that no longer represent the best in current icebreaker design troubling, particularly since this may be the first of three heavy icebreakers, not just a single stop-gap design.

USCGC Polar Sea

USCGC Polar Sea

There are of course only two large, in service, US hull designs.


USCGC Healy (foreground)

Our most modern, but frequently forgotten Great Lakes Icebreaker, USCGC Mackinaw (WLBB-30), is a few years younger but still designed about two decades ago, was built by Marinette Marine, which is at least still an operational shipyard, producing Freedom Class LCS for the Navy.

Would it be enough to simply say we are going to scale up the Mackinaw hull (say double all the dimensions) so that we could have a ship that at least uses azipods like most modern icebreakers?

Launch of USCGC Mackinaw (WLBB-30) on April 2, 2005. Photo by Peter J. Markham.

Launch of USCGC Mackinaw (WLBB-30) on April 2, 2005. Photo by Peter J. Markham.

Do we need the Navy?:

I would note that the Coast Guard’s intention had been to fund the Icebreaker in FY2018 not 2022, but somehow we had an unannounced delay of four years which was reduced by a much publicized decision to accelerate construction to 2020. Not only does this strike me as dishonest, but it also seems to suggest that the Coast Guard, given supporting funding, could be ready to contract for the Icebreaker on its own prior to 2020.
If the money were given to the Coast Guard instead of the Navy, I believe the icebreaker would be ready earlier, be delivered cheaper, and will be more in line with our true needs.
If we have to live with this:
As much as I dislike the prospect, we may have to live with this, because of the Congress’ self imposed “sequestration” silliness. If so, how the Navy/Coast Guard team that manages the procurement will be important. The Coast Guard needs to continue to grow its icebreaker expertise.

Perhaps NAVSEA could sub-contract the Coast Guard Acquisitions Directorate (CG-9) to procure the icebreaker.

Thanks to Tups for bringing the encouragement to select an in-service U.S. hull design to my attention.


17 thoughts on “Will the Navy Be Funding and Managing Our Next Icebreaker Procurement?

  1. In actuality, funding any new Coast Ship from the SCN fund will delay the process. When money comes from that account, the USN in the form of NAVSEA demands it includes features and capability which perhaps the USCG does Not want, or that increase the price of the ship. There is also design studied and pre-aquisition investigations which siphon off funds. Does the USCG not already know what it wants?
    Is the USCG incapable of doing ship procurement themselves with all the experience of Deepwater and other breaker buys under their belts?
    Unless the USCG and USN can cut an MOA very quickly, the Navy is not going to dive up its hold on the purse strings.

  2. The Coast Guard has not been able to make a determination of its needs for a new icebreaker for several years now. So to answer the question “does the USCG not already know what it wants?” The answer is NO! First it was three ships, then two ships and now it is down to one. And actually funding from the Navy may speed up the process of determining what is needed and how many. As to whether the ships would contain features not wanted by the Coast Guard is mere speculation.

    The Coast Guard needs vessels capable of FULL TIME YEAR ROUND polar service. These ships should also be capable of being armed for full modern warfare if required. Considering the already powerful presence of Russia and the emerging presence of other nations in polar regions this is no longer a choice.

    Nothing like the Coast Guard has at present will meet future demands that will be placed upon the service such as oil exploration, tourism and merchant trade through the North American polar regions.

  3. When it comes to “in-service U.S. hull designs”, there are also the following US-flagged icebreaking vessels in service:
    – Aiviq (2012-built 360′ icebreaking anchor handling tug supply (AHTS) vessel; 5 knots in 3 ft ice)
    – RV Sikuliaq (2014-built 261′ ice-capable research vessel; 2 knots in 2.5 ft ice)
    – RV Nathaniel B. Palmer (1992-built 308′ ice-capable research vessel; 3 knots in 3 ft ice)

    In my opinion, the only feasible candidate for a “discount heavy icebreaker” would be the USCGC Healy which is already essentially a polar icebreaker. Sure, the USCG has classified her as a “medium” icebreaker based on propulsion power, but she’s still relatively modern (1980s Finnish design) and nonetheless proven to be quite capable icebreaker with her recent trip to the North Pole without escort.

  4. The concept of “discount heavy icebreaker” is typical of old thinking. The western arctic especially along the eastern Alaska coast line and the Canadian Arctic full of straits bays and gulfs, is hard multiyear ice. Winter winds often of hurricane 3 or more intensity stack this ice in up to six story levels. Concepts such as variable pitch propellers and azipods only fail in these conditions. The requirements of polar industrialization and transportation over the next thirty to forty years will be no less stringent than what the Cutter Bear faced in the late 1800s
    Russia knows this and is building ships to meet the demands of the future.
    With respect to the Polar Class ships, and the Healy, they are designs of a long past age. They were and are expensive ships to operate. They both have short endurance between refuelings and are limited in ice capability by all new standards.

    • If Azipods are such a poor choice for the Arctic, then why does Russia keep investing to icebreakers with azimuth propulsion units, including some with thrusters in both bow and stern, and why no Azipod-equipped vessel has ever run into problems in the Russian Arctic? Even the two mid-1970s era tankers which were retrofitted with a single Azipod unit in the early 1990s remain in active service along the Northern Sea Route.

      Furthermore, what makes the Healy a “design of a long past age” in your eyes?

      • Russia does not use azipods, or CP propellers in any of its heavy icebreakers. These types of propulsion have been and are used in the North Sea and Baltic just as we have and are using them in the Great Lakes. Russia has used softer propulsion in smaller ships for freshwater lakes and rivers. The same is true of the other systems you discussed. I am not familiar with any Russian tankers with azipods working the Northern Sea Route.

        The Healy can only operate a couple of months without refueling. It is limited in power and maneuverability. Otherwise, It is quite suitable for what it is being used for.

      • Here’s a few icebreaking ships that use (or will use) Azipod propulsion in the Arctic:
        – Norilskiy Nickel series (6 ships): ice class Arc7, independent icebreaking in ahead and astern direction in 1.5 m ice, one 13 MW Azipod unit
        – Vasiliy Dinkov series (3 ships): ice class Arc6, independent icebreaking in ahead and astern direction in 1.5 m ice, two 10 MW Azipod units
        – Mikhail Ulyanov series (2 ships): ice class Arc6, independent icebreaking in 1.2 m ice in astern direction, two 8.5 MW Azipod units
        – Yamal LNG tankers (15 ships under construction at DSME): ice class Arc7, independent icebreaking in 2.1 m ice in astern direction, three 15 MW Azipod units
        – Novy Port shuttle tankers (6 ships under construction at Samsung): ice class Arc7, independent operation in 1.4 m ice in astern direction, two Azipod units

        The oldest of these have been in operation for ten years now and there has never been any issues with the propulsion system. They operate in the same region where the Arktika-class icebreakers escort “normal” ice-strengthened cargo ships, and maintain a tight schedule on the Dudinka route.

        As for true icebreakers, for example the Varandey oil terminal icebreakers have Steerprop azimuth thrusters. In addition, Russia is building two ice class Icebreaker8 (comparable to Polar Class 2) vessels for the Novy Port oil terminal in the Gulf of Ob. These icebreakers, which have a design icebreaking capability of 2 metres, have two Azipod units in the stern and one in the bow. A third vessel currently under construction in Russia has the same ice class and icebreaking capability, and two Azipod units plus a centerline shaft as propulsion. The ice class mandates that the vessels must be capable of operating in the presence of 3 m thick ice floes.

        As for CPP, in the 1980s Finland built a series of 19 SA-15 class icebreaking cargo ships with KaMeWa controllable pitch propellers. They had a shaft power of 15 MW, higher than the Taymyr-class nuclear-powered icebreakers. However, the only Russian icebreakers with CPPs are the sub-arctic Mudyug class, so in that sense you are correct.

        Needless to say, the Azipod propulsion system (and other azimuth thruster systems, to a smaller degree) have proven themselves in Arctic ice conditions. It’s true that they are not used in the largest nuclear-powered icebreakers, but those are not the only ships operating in the region and don’t really represent the latest technology in the world of icebreaking. Apart from the biggest line icebreakers, the Russians are unlikely to build shaftline icebreakers anymore due to the extremely positive feedback from operating ships with azimuth thruster propulsion system. Sure, if you back up at high speed to a multi-year ice floe, you might risk damaging the pods, but those ships are not designed to operate in that way. I can come up an easy way to break even the mighty Project 22220 nuclear-powered icebreakers…

      • I am well aware of all that you posted. But none are “heavy breakers” which was the point of my first comment post. Also, over 40% of the artic has disappeared since 1970 which makes heavy breakers less important: except for the constrained regions of North America. The United States needs vessels capable of operating constantly, year round, in U.S. and Canadian waters.(Operating is the operational word in this sentence.) We simply don’t have that. The Coast Guard ceased winter Arctic operations quite some time ago. The Polar Star was never able to function past Wainwright during the winter. I personally believe the Coast Guard needs four new icebreakers. Two medium breakers for seasonal polar service and two heavy breakers for primarily Arctic service.

        Ships are useless and just eat money tied to a dock and icebreakers more so. There is no reason a ship needs to sit at the dock for months. The Polar Class is over thirty years old and has a hull life expectancy of another twenty five years. The Lenin had its hull worn completely out in twenty years of operation. All due to the marked difference in operational time.

        As to the Finnish 19-SA class, (15 MW) their power was half of the Taymyr which was 36 MW. While Azipods are excellent in so many ways, yet I do not believe they are reliable enough for heavy Arctic service. All of the ships you have described using Azipods or CP propellers are constructed for use in areas of single season ice for the most part. The sixteen new Russian tankers under construction, or still in planning may be an exception to that. Their design however is limited with capability of 1.5 meters of ice at 3 kts. Two LNG tankers have been specifically built for service to and from Asia via the North Sea Route. Since the beginning of the year Russian Breakers have made 19 round trips through the North Sea Route. That should be a indication of the possibility of what possibilities lie ahead for the Northwest Passage.

        And if heavy breakers were not essential to maritime operations in this sector of the planet I’m sure Russia would not be building six new replacement heavy nuclear ships. None of which will be Azipod propulsion. The Artika Class are year round non-stop breakers whose primary purpose is keeping sea lanes ice clear so lesser vessels may transit. The present Artika Class ships are over twenty and more years old. They are being replaced with a new Artika Class which will be larger, more powerful and capable of adjusting draft for rivers and lakes. And they don’t have to seek ports thousands of miles away for fuel. Russia’s Arctic Coast Line is approximately 15,000 miles long with few fuel ports and less ship yards, thus nuclear power.

        Our closet fuel port from Point Barrow is Dutch Harbor and 1400 miles away. That’s a weeks round trip not counting WASTED fuel for either the Healy or Polar Star. Should there be any large increase in maritime activity in the Arctic both ships may be heavily pressed to service and fuel breaks could be a difference between loss of life or otherwise.

        I any event it is a pleasure discussing theses issues with you.

  5. Apart from the operational time, one of the reason why the early Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers such as Lenin, Arktika and Sibir suffered from excessive hull corrosion was the lack of good abrasion-resistant surface coatings. By 1983, Sibir’s hull had become so rough that it sometimes needed help from cargo ships that were navigating independently in the same ice conditions. Of course, even icebreaker paints such as Inerta 160 wear off eventually, but abrasion-resistant epoxy coatings were still a significant improvement over older paint systems and even allow for smaller corrosion margins in the hull structures. Stainless steel is even better if you can afford it.

    As for the SA-15 class, I was referring to the rating of a single propeller, not the total shaft power. Taymyr-class puts 36 MW to the water through three FPPs while the SA-15 class ships had just a single 15 MW CPP which, unlike that of Sevmorput and the Canadian bulkers, is not protected by a nozzle. However, while it’s possible to build robust CPPs that can withstand heavy ice loads, there’s obviously no sense in using them in a heavy polar icebreaker which have electrically-driven propellers.

    In my opinion, Russia is taking quite a risk with the rushed construction of three new Arktika-class nuclear-powered icebreakers. One has been launched but lacks the reactor, turbines and the massive superstructure while the second one is on the slipway and the third one will be laid down this summer. Considering that the original Arktika class was designed in the 1970s, it’s been a while since Russia developed such complex icebreaking vessels domestically. I wonder if they can achieve the target minimum draft – it didn’t really work out with the 25 MW diesel-electric icebreaker that they’re building in St. Petersburg…

    Anyway, back to the topic of the suitability of azimuth thrusters for heavy polar icebreakers. While the USCG probably has little use to some of the advantages of azimuth propulsion such as vastly improved maneuverablity during escort operations, Azipods and the like offer superior performance in certain ice conditions that can be more challenging to an icebreaker than multi-year ice. If you’re passing through a low-coverage ice field full of those deep blue multi-year floes at relatively high speed, you’ll of course take the heavy blows with the most reinforced part of the icebreaker. However, brute force won’t help you if instead of such postcard scenery you’re, say, in the middle of a compressive ridge field where you need to utilize the active flushing of the propulsion units to break up the ridges ahead of you and flush the ice floes along the hull. If you attempt “ramming and backing” with a conventional icebreaker, you can end up in a situation where the ship becomes immobilized because the astern thrust is not sufficient to extract the hull from the ridge. This simply cannot happen with azimuth propulsion. Even if you need to ram your way through some multi-year ice feature, the cycle time is shorter when you don’t have to reverse the propellers or even slow them down.

    As for how many and what kind of icebreakers the USCG needs, it’s up to them in the end, but if I were given a chance, I would defend a more advanced solution over more conventional designs and try to talk them over arguments such as “this is not how we did it in the 1970s (or 1960s, 1950s, 1940s…)” or “I heard about these things in the 1990s and they had a lot of issues back then”. The new USCG icebreaker will already be one of the world’s most expensive icebreakers – why shouldn’t it be one of the world’s most advanced as well?

  6. Again a little bit of something regarding the polar icebreaker project:


    Curious item from draft scope of work:

    “The model shall be reconfigurable to allow testing of two bow configurations and two stern configurations. … One bow section will be of a “wedge” type configuration to for improved open water performance, while the other section will be of fuller rounded shape to optimize for icebreaking performance. … One stern section shall be shaped to accommodate a traditional shafted, fixed pitch propeller configuration (one centerline propeller, two outboard propellers and a single centerline rudder). The other stern section shall be shaped to accommodate a centerline podded azimuthing electric drive unit and two shafted outboard propellers (no rudder in this configuration).”

    The only icebreaker concept with the latter propulsion arrangement is of course the proposed Canadian polar icebreaker, CCGS John G. Diefenbaker.

  7. Some criticism on the USCG icebreaker program in a Politico writeup:


    Curious why they call the Healy just “an ice-capable scientific research vessel” while it’s far more powerful than most non-nuclear icebreakers in service and has e.g. sailed to the North Pole without assistance.

    Furthermore, out of the five alternative approaches, only the “whole of government approach” sounds remotely feasible. But the rest? I wonder which existing USCG vessels they are proposing for conversion to Arctic service, particularly to medium or heavy icebreaking duty? What are the privately owned ships (in plural!) that the USCG could consider leasing now that they have clearly stated they don’t want the Aiviq? How about the ships that were under construction for Arctic service before Shell decided to call it a day – correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the last piece of news about those hulls include the word “cancelled”? And finally, which Canadian vessel they are talking about, considering that their newest medium icebreaker is from the 1980s and is significantly less capable than the Healy? Heck, that probably applies even to the Canadian heavy icebreakers…

  8. There is a story here about increased defense cooperation between the US and Finnland.

    The thing I found remarkable was that cooperation in shipbuilding was specifically mentioned.

    “The pact covers cooperation in ship building, nuclear defense and developing technologies for the Arctic – an area of increasing interest for both nations.”

    Of course the one area where the Finns are world leads in shipbuilding is icebreakers.

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