Second Great Lakes Icebreaker?

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

US Senators from Great Lakes states are again pushing for second icebreaker on the Great Lakes at least as capable as USCGC Mackinaw. A letter jointly signed by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Gary Peters (D-MI), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Rob Portman (R-OH) Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tina Smith (D-MN), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Todd Young (R-IN) has been mailed to the Commandant and the acting Secretary of Department of Homeland Security.

Full text of the letter can be found below:

Dear Director Mulvaney, Acting Secretary Wolf, and Admiral Schultz;

As the Administration works to finalize its FY 2021 budget request to Congress, we urge you to include adequate funding to support the Coast Guard’s acquisition of a Great Lakes icebreaker.

Icebreaking capacity supports the movement through the Great Lakes of more than 90 million tons of cargo annually. According to a study commissioned by the Lake Carriers’ Association, businesses that depend upon the Great Lakes maritime industry lost over $1 billion in revenues because of delays caused by inadequate icebreaking during the 2018-2019 ice-season.  Vessel delays also resulted in the loss of 5,421 jobs dependent upon the efficient delivery of cargo throughout the Great Lakes Region.

The Coast Guard is required by law to maintain a heavy icebreaking capability on the Great Lakes to keep our region’s ports and harbors open and facilitate our nation’s free flow of commerce. However, the current maintenance condition of the existing icebreaking fleet has resulted in 182 lost operating days last winter primarily due to engine failures. To this end, Congress has authorized the Coast Guard to acquire a new Great Lakes icebreaker at least as capable as the heavy icebreaker the MACKINAW (WLBB-30), and has directed and provided funding for the Coast Guard to establish a major program acquisition office to support the design and procurement of a vessel.

We respectfully request adequate funding for the acquisition of a Great Lakes icebreaker in your FY 2021 budget request.  Thank you, in advance, for your consideration of our views.

Their concern is easy to understand. There is no redundancy for the USCGC Mackinaw. If she has a catastrophic failure, it could be disastrous for the economics of the Lakes area. Even with her, shortfalls in capability have cost area a great deal.

We have discussed this before.

The Lake Carriers’ Association claims economic loses cost the Federal Government enough in taxes to pay for a new icebreaker in as little as two years.

Thanks to Fred for bringing this to my attention. 

18 thoughts on “Second Great Lakes Icebreaker?

  1. I believe it. I saw a video that showed a USCG icebreaking tug breaking ice around a ice-locked ship. The problem was that the beam of the icebreaking tug was so narrow that the tug had to repeatedly break the ice around the ship and it wasn’t wide enough to really effect any forward movement, just to free the ship was all the tug could really do. Therefore, the Great Lakes needs another heavy icebreaker or two with a much wider beam.

    Critics cite that the MACKINAW is a compromise between an icebreaker and a buoy tender and that sometimes heavy surf or snow gets on deck through the notch where the crane is. Therefore, a heavy icebreaker like the Polar Security Cutter design might be needed. The current MACKINAW has too much exposed deck for falling snow to accumulate when icebreaking.

    Really, is there any real USCG Cutter in the Great Lakes for Law Enforcement or defense with the firepower greater than .50cal M2s?

    • Relative to the fact that there are essentially no armed cutters on the Lakes, this goes back to the Rush-Bagot Treaty,–Bagot_Treaty. Of course there are occasionally armed vessels on the Lakes. Freedom class LCS are built on the Lakes and it is possible frigates will be. Submarines were built on the Lakes in WWII.

      Still the treaty is considered in force and symbolically important. Since we are only likely to need weapons for law enforcement on the Lakes, .50 cal. is probably adequate.

    • While the bouy tender mission forced some compromises on the ship, I think it was still overall a good idea to position it as a multirole ship to help secure funding and legislative support. The best icebreaker we never get pales in comparison to the OK one that actually reaches the fleet.

  2. The Polar Security Cutter is probably bigger than we need. It is about 22,900 tons and had a beam of 88 ft. The USCGC Mackinaw Displaces only 3,500 tons and has a beam of 58.5 ft (17.8 m) and draft of 16 ft (4.9 m). We could still have a considerably larger ship that could still could transit the St. Lawrence Seaway. SeawayMax: beam of 78 ft (23.8 m) and a draft of 26.5 ft (8.1 m)

    • The old USCGC Mackinaw (WAGB-83) had a beam of 74.3 ft and a displacement of 5,252 tons. I’d say 7,000 to 8,000 tons would be a realistic bracket for a modern “Mackinaw Plus”, noting the fact that modern icebreakers tend to be slightly bigger than their historical counterparts for a number of reasons.

      As for Locam’s comment, I didn’t really understand how snow could be a major problem.

    • I thought the old Mackinaw (WAGB-83), was too big to leave the Great Lakes, but the Seaway seems big enough to have allowed it.

      Personally, I don’t recall a lot of complaints about the old Mackinaw. A duplicate with updated mechanicals and electronics would be perfectly fine. Another possibility is using 1 or more of the future medium icebreakers to supplement the new Mackinaw in Winter months, when presumably the Arctic would be too iced over for these smaller “medium” icebreakers.

    • And no longer going to be constructed anytime soon, if ever, if the GAO gets its way…

      ( https : // news . usni . org / 2020/02/13/gao-testimony-on-coast-guard-icebreaker-programs )

    • DeWolf class might work, but it is not primarily an icebreaker. It is a compromise between working in the Ice in Winter and patrolling offshore at other times. We could probably do better.

      • I usually distinguish “icebreakers” from “other icebreaking ships” based on the primary mission. Whereas icebreakers are designed to break ice so that other vessels could complete their missions, for ships such as Harry DeWolf class icebreaking capability is just a means to an end. Usually this means that their capability to offer icebreaking services to other ships is somewhat limited beyond just sailing a straight line in front of them.

  3. I was looking back at the older posts you linked on this subject.
    Have to say, I kind of like the idea offered by Ben Roethig back in August ( )
    To replace the Lakes based Juniper-class buoy tenders with additional Mackinaw-class ships.
    I might go a little further, and suggest replacing the Alaska based Junipers as well.

    And, to the argument that this would be just more fielding of “compromise” vessels. I’m really not sure the USCG can afford not to field multi-purpose ships for this tasking. And that commonality serves as an easily justifiable selling point to those approving the budgets

    Ben’s comment also brings to mind that the Bay-class tugs are rapidly approaching their time for recapitalization. With the oldest just passing 40 years in commission..
    I guess it’s all a good reminder that the USCG has a crap load of vessels entering or past critical ages.

      • The idea of a second Great Lakes icebreaker is a solution to a years-long problem that needs to be solved. This problem exists and should not be denied or ignored. It was shown on a TV documentary (either HISTORY or SCIENCE Channel, I believe) and seemed quite embarrassing when Canada has more icebreakers than the USCG/USA….and that documentary wasn’t recent.

        As for the solution, I would say that almost any new USCG icebreaker larger than an icebreaking tug is a wise solution if it performs and functions well without breakdowns.

        This is just a classic case of a growing (ice) problem needing a permanent icebreaker solution by the U.S. government that could be solved for decades to come.

      • @Locam, Canada has icebreakers that tend buoys and the USCG has buoy tenders that break ice. In reality there is very little difference in concept. As far as I can tell, Canada has only two icebreakers homeported on the Lakes while the US has Mackinaw and two 225 foot WLBs that also break ice. Moving other vessels into the Lakes is always a possibility.

        Most of Canada’s icebreakers are occupied in keeping Atlantic and Pacific ports open. They really need more icebreakers than we do, just as the Russians do.

  4. Of all the types of ships in the Coast Guard, the buoy tenders are in perhaps the best shape. The 16 WLBs were commissioned between 1996 and 2005 and they are currently undergoing a Service Life Extension Program. The 14 WLMs were commissioned between 1997 and 2000. So the oldest are 24 years old. I would like to think that they would be replaced when they reach 30 years old, but I don’t think that is going to happen, we are probably looking at, at least 40 year old before they are replaced. The previous generation were even older than that when they were replaced. The WLBs we have now already have some degree of icebreakering capability.

    Bottom line, a dual purpose icebreaker with a buoy tending capability may not be a good selling point, though there is probably no reason the feature could not be included.

    • I wonder if the recent Webber-class long range transit experiment could be the basis of a selling point. In that the USCGC Oliver Berry’s 4400 nm transit required refueling support from the USCGC Walnut. The Pacific with its tyranny of distance could be helped by forward deploying more WLBs. Based in Guam but primarily on rotational patrols in support of the Free Associated States. The two more ships in the region could be sold as a Chinese deterrent. Those two WLBs could come from the Great Lakes if replace by two dual purpose icebreakers similar to the USCGC Mackinaw.

      • @cokolman, That is an interesting idea. I would shape it a little differently. I would not expect more than one Mackinaw+ sized icebreaker for the Great Lakes, so we cannot expect to free more than one buoy tender.

        Rather than Guam, we might want to put it somewhere else in the Western Pacific and pair it with a couple of Webber class, perhaps in American Samoa. Not only would they provide buoy tending and law enforcement, they would also be available for disaster response.

        I think 7th fleet wants something like PATFORSWA in the Western Pacific. A buoy tender to provide support might be a good addition.

        It would much more analysis of the need, but alternate uses for a freed up WLB is worth considering.

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