Does Atlantic Fleet Need an Icebreaker Capability?

USCGC Southwind Commissioning.

This post is going to be a little strange, because it starts with a question no one has ask and it will not provide any real answer. It is more the start of a thought process about possibilities. 
Does the Atlantic Fleet need icebreakers to support high latitude operations? Particularly US military icebreakers? And if so, could this support be provided by icebreakers that might also provide icebreaking services in the Great Lakes during peacetime?
I don’t know, but we do know that the Coast Guard’s first icebreakers were not based in the Pacific and they were not intended for Antarctic. They were used during World War Two in the Atlantic, particularly around Greenland.
We also know that NORAD and NORTHCOM are going to need to start replacing the Dew Line Systems with more modern systems that are need to protect against, not just ballistic missiles and high altitude strategic bombers, but also surface skimming cruise missiles.
LANTFLT may not have considered the question  They only recently operated a carrier strike group North of the Arctic Circle for the first time in almost three decades. The question may not have come up, or they may have assumed that when the Coast Guard gets new icebreakers some of them will operate in the Atlantic.
If the Coast Guard persists in its current pattern, all icebreakers, except small icebreaking tugs and those in the Great Lakes, will be homeported in the Pacific. Of course that makes some sense. The US Arctic coast is all in Alaska and most readily accessible from the Pacific. The US Antarctic base at McMurdo Sound is also most accessible from the Pacific.
Atlantic Area’s only icebreaking requirement for assets more capable than the 140 foot icebreaking tugs and the 2,000 ton, 6,200 HP, 225 foot Juniper class buoy tenders is in the Great Lakes.
What kind of icebreaker might both operate in the Great Lakes and be available to support LANTFLT?
In World War II this was impossible. The Saint Lawrence Seaway was not opened to ocean going traffic until 1959. The Saint Lawrence Seaway currently admits ship up to a length 740 ft (225.6 m), a beam of 78 ft (23.8 m) and a draft of 26.5 ft (8.1 m) (SeawayMax). Clearly, it is the beam and draft which are the limiting parameters for any icebreaker design that is intended to operate alternately in both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic. The Polar Security Cutters with a beam of 88 feet are clearly too large, as would be the 13,623 ton Polar Star, with its 83 ft 6 in (25.45 m) beam and the Healey with its 82 foot beam.
In looking at what sorts of icebreaker might be usable in both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, we have to recognize that draft will increase in fresh water because it is up to about 3% less dense but on the other hand the icebreaker could transit the locks in a lightened condition, at less than full load, reducing their draft. There may be a bit more flexibility relative to draft. 
The newer USCGC Mackinaw (WLBB-30) is not limited by the locks, with a displacement of 3,500 tons, it has a beam of only 58.5 ft (17.8 m) and a draft of 16 ft (4.9 m). Even the much larger original Mackinaw would have fit, (Displacement:5,252 long tons (5,336 t), Length: 290 ft (88 m), Beam: 74.3 ft (22.6 m), Draft: 19.5 ft (5.9 m)) as would the Wind class.

Norwegian Coast Guard Vessel Svalbard. Photo by Marcusroos

A couple of modern military classes that might be available to aid in the Arctic are the Norwegian Coast Guard Cutter Svalbard and the very similar Canadian Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS). Both could easily transit the Saint Lawrence Seaway, but, with 12,000 to 13,410 HP, neither could be considered a medium icebreaker. Even so they are more powerful than the Mackinaw.

USCGC Glacier (WAGB-4)

USCGC Glacier (WAGB-4) (8,449 long tons (8,585 t) full load) would be considered a medium icebreaker due to her 16,000 MW (21,000 HP) motors. Her draft appears too deep at 29 ft (8.8 m), but since her beam 74 ft (23 m) was well within the SeawayMax, it should be possible to make an at least comparably capable ship that could navigate the Seaway. Additional length over and above Glacier’s 309 ft 6 in (94.34 m) could provide space to meet additional requirements. 
It should be possible to make a reasonably capable class of medium icebreakers that could be homeported in the Great Lakes and also be available to support any LANTFLT operation requiring icebreaker support.
These ships might be seen as overkill relative to the requirements of the Great Lakes, but if they wish to extend the navigational season, the additional capability might be useful.
An ability to support naval operations might provide additional justification for these vessels. For peacetime operations on the Lakes, armament is unnecessary and might be seen as a treaty violation, but provision for adding armament in case of a future conflict might be a good hedge against an uncertain future.
Could the same design also serve as the Medium Icebreakers currently planned? This is less clear. There is also the possibility that the best course to provide the six icebreakers currently being discussed is to simply build six of the current design Polar Security Cutters.

12 thoughts on “Does Atlantic Fleet Need an Icebreaker Capability?

  1. Chuck,
    One of the Wind class did operate on the Great Lakes in the past, I believe in Lake Michigan out of Milwaukee.

  2. It should be noted that neither the Norwegian Svalbard nor the Canadian Harry DeWolf class (AOPS) are designed to support other vessels in ice conditions; to simplify, they only break ice for themselves to fulfil their mission, but their ability to do it for other ships is somewhat limited. This is critical capability in the Great Lakes mission (supporting commercial shipping during the freezing period). Now that the Canadians are building the AOPS also for the CCG, there are some concerns that someone, someday may consider them as replacements for “real” icebreakers which they clearly are not. I’m also a bit concerned about balancing the design between icebreaking and open water operations; how much weight to give for seakeeping?

    As for the main dimension limitations, beam is the critical one as you can always transit the locks in light condition. The largest modern icebreaking ship that meets the 78 ft maximum breadth is the 14,300-ton Chinese polar research vessel Xue Long 2 which is rated for Polar Class 3 and can break 5 ft of ice with a hair over 20,000 shp from two Azipod propulsion units. Finland and Sweden also operate 1970s era 9,500-ton/22,000 shp quad-screw icebreakers that could theoretically transit the locks, albeit I doubt they’d actually fit through as they are just at the limit…

    Anyway, I wouldn’t be too concerned about the main dimensions limitation; you can easily design a relatively large icebreaking vessel that fits through.

    • @Tups, “Anyway, I wouldn’t be too concerned about the main dimensions limitation; you can easily design a relatively large icebreaking vessel that fits through.”

      Thanks for the confirmation, thought that was probably the case.

  3. Chuck, The icebreaker that was on the Great Lakes was the USCGC Westwind W281 from 1976-1977, in Milwaukee. According to Wikipedia she split her time on the Great Lakes in the winter and to Thule, Greenland in the summer.

  4. Chuck,
    The Lake Carriers Association (LCA) is the driving force behind the first and potentially second Great Lakes Icebreaker (GLIB) and doesn’t like the idea of taking the icebreaker out of the lakes because they know once a GLIB leaves the lakes it isn’t coming back. The reasoning that the CG would bring a second icebreaker into the lakes when needed for an unusually heavy ice season i don’t think will work because by the time you realize you’re in a heavy ice year, the locks are closed. You have to have the ship in the lakes already “just in case”, which is why the dual icebreaking buoy tender is so advantageous to the CG. Lake navigation is the key. The buoys have to be pulled regardless of the ice thickness so your heavy icebreaker isn’t just sitting around waiting for ice beyond the limits of the 140’s to handle. And the 140 and barge doesn’t help here either because of the time it takes to uncouple. You have to guess the weather and get rid of the barge before any ice forms so they are either doing ATON or Ice, but not both where Mackinaw can pull buoys late in the season as ice is forming. Doing some rough numbers i think a second GLIB could be built for less than half the price of a new design Medium Icebreaker and with the buoy tending capability has much more operational utility to the CG in the lakes than a single purpose icebreaker.

  5. Felt I should point out that three “Viking”(class?) icebreaking anchor handling tugs that the Canadian Coast Guard are converting to serve as medium class icebreakers are within your desired dimensional constraints. I imagine it is possible there might be a number of similar vessels out there to be acquired under reasonable terms

    For a couple months now I’ve been wondering is the US Navy missed an opportunity. to gain an additional capability, if they could have included icebreaking capabilities to their new Navajo-class T-ATS(X) towing, salvage and rescue ships

    • The reason why CCG paid such a hefty premium for the Viking trio is that they essentially bought 75 % of the icebreaking tonnage available in the market, leaving only the US-flagged Aiviq open for acquisition. There are no other icebreaking offshore vessels available anywhere in the world.

      I think there should be at least one “real” icebreaker in the Great Lakes. You can easily incorporate a buoy tending functionality to any icebreaker design; it does not have to be a compromise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s