Memorandum on Safeguarding U.S. National Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions

The President has issued a memorandum, dated 9 June, 2020, regarding the Coast Guard’s Polar Security Cutter Program. The Memorandum is relative short and is duplicated below. I have added emphasis to what I see as some of the more important points by making some of the text bold. Below that, I will provide my comments.

SUBJECT:    Safeguarding U.S. National Interests in the
Arctic and Antarctic RegionsTo help protect our national interests in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, and to retain a strong Arctic security presence alongside our allies and partners, the United States requires a ready, capable, and available fleet of polar security icebreakers that is operationally tested and fully deployable by Fiscal Year 2029.  Accordingly, by the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, I hereby direct the following:Section 1.  Fleet Acquisition Program.  The United States will develop and execute a polar security icebreaking fleet acquisition program that supports our national interests in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

(a)  The Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Commerce, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), shall lead a review of requirements for a polar security icebreaking fleet acquisition program to acquire and employ a suitable fleet of polar security icebreakers, and associated assets and resources, capable of ensuring a persistent United States presence in the Arctic and Antarctic regions in support of national interests and in furtherance of the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy, as appropriate.  Separately, the review shall include the ability to provide a persistent United States presence in the Antarctic region, as appropriate, in accordance with the Antarctic Treaty System.  The Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of OMB, in executing this direction, shall ensure that the United States Coast Guard’s (USCG) Offshore Patrol Cutter acquisition program is not adversely impacted.

(b)  The Secretary of Homeland Security, acting through the Commandant of the Coast Guard, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, acting through the Secretary of the Navy, and the Secretary of Energy, as appropriate, shall conduct a study of the comparative operational and fiscal benefits and risks of a polar security icebreaking fleet mix that consists of at least three heavy polar-class security cutters (PSC) that are appropriately outfitted to meet the objectives of this memorandum.  This study shall be submitted to the President, through the Director of OMB and the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, within 60 days from the date of this memorandum and at a minimum shall include:

(i)    Use cases in the Arctic that span the full range of national and economic security missions (including the facilitation of resource exploration and exploitation and undersea cable laying and maintenance) that may be executed by a class of medium PSCs, as well as analysis of how these use cases differ with respect to the anticipated use of heavy PSCs for these same activities.  These use cases shall identify the optimal number and type of polar security icebreakers for ensuring a persistent presence in both the Arctic and, as appropriate, the Antarctic regions;

(ii)   An assessment of expanded operational capabilities, with estimated associated costs, for both heavy and medium PSCs not yet contracted for, specifically including the maximum use of any such PSC with respect to its ability to support national security objectives through the use of the following:  unmanned aviation, surface, and undersea systems; space systems; sensors and other systems to achieve and maintain maritime domain awareness; command and control systems; secure communications and data transfer systems; and intelligence-collection systems.  This assessment shall also evaluate defensive armament adequate to defend against threats by near-peer competitors and the potential for nuclear-powered propulsion;

(iii)  Based on the determined fleet size and composition, an identification and assessment of at least two optimal United States basing locations and at least two international basing locations.  The basing location assessment shall include the costs, benefits, risks, and challenges related to infrastructure, crewing, and logistics and maintenance support for PSCs at these locations.  In addition, this assessment shall account for potential burden-sharing opportunities for basing with the Department of Defense and allies and partners, as appropriate; and

(iv)   In anticipation of the USCGC POLAR STAR’s operational degradation from Fiscal Years 2022-2029, an analysis to identify executable options, with associated costs, to bridge the gap of available vessels as early as Fiscal Year 2022 until the new PSCs required to meet the objectives of this memorandum are operational, including identifying executable, priced leasing options, both foreign and domestic.  This analysis shall specifically include operational risk associated with using a leased vessel as compared to a purchased vessel to conduct specified missions set forth in this memorandum.

(c)  In the interest of securing a fully capable polar security icebreaking fleet that is capable of providing a persistent presence in the Arctic and Antarctic regions at the lowest possible cost, the Secretary of State shall coordinate with the Secretary of Homeland Security in identifying viable polar security icebreaker leasing options, provided by partner nations, as a near- to mid-term (Fiscal Years 2022-2029) bridging strategy to mitigate future operational degradation of the USCGC POLAR STAR.  Leasing options shall contemplate capabilities that allow for access to the Arctic and Antarctic regions to, as appropriate, conduct national and economic security missions, in addition to marine scientific research in the Arctic, and conduct research in Antarctica in accordance with the Antarctic Treaty System.  Further, and in advance of any bid solicitation for future polar security icebreaker acquisitions, the Secretary of State shall coordinate with the Secretary of Homeland Security to identify partner nations with proven foreign shipbuilding capability and expertise in icebreaker construction.

(d)  The Secretary of Defense shall coordinate with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security to continue to provide technical and programmatic support to the USCG integrated program office for the acquisition, outfitting, and operations of all classes of PSCs.

Sec2.  General Provisions.  (a)  Nothing in this memorandum shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i)   the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii)  the functions of the Director of OMB relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(b)  This memorandum shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c)  This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

Notably this is in reference to both Arctic and Antarctic. There are a number of issues raised here:
  • Optimal number and type of polar security icebreakers
  • What does “persistent United States presence” mean?
  • How the Medium icebreakers will be used differently from the Heavy icebreakers?
  • Expanded operational capabilities
  • Defensive armament
  • Nuclear power
  • Basing: “two optimal United States basing locations and at least two international basing locations”
  • “Leasing options, both foreign and domestic”
  • “Identify partner nations with proven foreign shipbuilding capability and expertise in icebreaker construction.”
In most cases these topics are not new. With few exceptions, the Coast Guard has certainly considered these topics and should have well thought out positions.

Basing “two optimal United States basing locations and at least two international basing locations”

The Basing question seem the most original and may suggest the US may want to have icebreakers based in the Atlantic. First it is not clear what is meant by bases. Does it mean homeports, permanent US Navy/Coast Guard overseas bases, or just a place to replenish?
We already know the Coast Guard plans to base the first Polar Security Cutters (PSC) in Seattle.
When bound for Antarctica, icebreakers operate out of Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island. At one time there was consideration of basing icebreakers there, but it seems unlikely New Zealand would actually welcome a year round Navy or Coast Guard base, and there seems to be little reason to seek one. Perhaps this could qualify as a base if we are only talking a regular replenishment station.
The US unlike the rest of the world includes the Aleutians and Bering Sea as part of the Arctic, although they are below the Arctic Circle. There has been a lot of discussion about an “Arctic (really near Arctic) Base” for the Navy and Coast Guard. Likely candidates are Adak, Port Clarence, or Nome. We talked about it here, here, and here.
Seattle, Christchurch, and the Alaskan Arctic base might account for three of the four bases referred to, two domestic and one “international,” all on the Pacific side of the World. What about the fourth base? I don’t see need for another base in the South Pacific. Could he actually be thinking about having icebreakers based on the Atlantic side? There might be reason to base some icebreaking capability with easier access to the Atlantic side. We discussed that here. If that is the case, he is really talking two homeports, one on the Pacific and one on the Atlantic or perhaps Great Lakes, plus two supporting locations, one in the South Pacific and one closer to the Arctic on the Atlantic side. (We don’t need an “international” base to access the Pacific side of the Arctic.) An Atlantic support base could mean Canada, Greenland, Iceland, or least likely, Norway. If we wanted to count the proposed Alaskan near Arctic base that would mean two homeports and three support locations.

Optimal number and type of polar security icebreakers:

The High Latitude Study, now at least eight years old, has been what the Coast Guard has hung its hat on for an establish requirement, specifically three heavy and three medium icebreakers.  Based on the rule of thumb, that you need three ships to keep one fully operational (one in maintenance, one in training, work-up, or standby, and one operational), that would mean we could have one heavy and one icebreaker underway essentially year round. Problem is that we need heavy icebreakers for both the Arctic winter and the Antarctic summer which occur at the same time. We might even need heavy icebreakers to operate in the Arctic Spring and Fall, and we would really like to have two heavies go south to provide a rescue capability.

This suggest that since the price of the Heavy PSC has come down to close to what we had anticipated for the Medium PSC, perhaps we should simply continue building the more capable ship.

Six Heavy PSC would still not provide any icebreaking capability on the Atlantic side and would preclude the possibility of ever using the ships in the Great Lakes. Maybe there is a place for medium icebreakers there?

What does “persistent United States presence” mean?

Do we really need an icebreaker in Antarctic waters year round? We do have a presence in the form of people who winter over in Antarctica.

In reference to the Arctic, presence might be in the form of a continuous Icebreaker presence, but it also might be in the form of surveillance with an icebreaker on call somewhere below the Bering Strait which the US considers the Arctic, where it might be useful for SAR and fisheries enforcement.

Does Presence include an Atlantic side presence? We need some better definitions here.

How the Medium icebreakers will be used differently from the Heavy icebreakers?

This might be a back door way to ask if we really need two different classes? One of my impressions was that the while Heavy icebreakers might go North or South, the medium breakers would operate exclusively in the Arctic. The lack of treaty obligations gives us more flexibility in how to equip ships that would not be subject to inspection, so medium breakers might have heavier weapons, ESM, classified sensors, or intelligence spaces. None of this however precludes equipping Heavies this way, if they will not be going South.

Expanded operational capabilities:

The memorandum specifically mentions unmanned aviation, surface, and undersea systems; space systems; sensors and other systems to achieve and maintain maritime domain awareness; command and control systems; secure communications and data transfer systems; and intelligence-collection systems.

The heavies are large vessels with lots of space, plus organic weight handling equipment. They should be readily adaptable for operation of unmanned systems. Maritime Domain Awareness in the Arctic is challenging, but unmanned air systems should expand the ship’s horizons. There should be space for command and control systems; secure communications and data transfer systems; and intelligence-collection systems but what they actually carry and the choice of installed or containerized system would depend on anticipated employment.

Defensive armament:

It may be significant that it specifies defensive armament. The Commandant has referenced the Russian’s building of Project 23550 armed icebreakers illustrated with containerized cruise missile systems on their stern. Adm. Zukunft suggested that given the unpredictability of the situation in the Arctic the Coast Guard might need to add Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM) and consequently the PSCs were being built with reserves as a hedge against such future additions.
So far the only armament seen on illustrations of the PSCs appear to be 25mm Mk38 Mod2/3 mounts like those being fitted to the Webber class WPCs. That is probably adequate for law enforcement.
Given the Navy’s desire to have distributed lethality, it might make sense to put ASCMs on icebreakers that do not go South to Antarctica.
All icebreakers should have the option of adding defensive systems. If we ever have a conflict in ice covered area, the icebreakers will be critically important, perhaps irreplaceable. There should be provision for providing adequate defense including perhaps two SeaRAM, Electronic Warfare systems, decoys, and torpedo warning system and countermeasures,
Nuclear power:
The Coast Guard did consider this, quite a while a go (back when I was a cadet). The Navy at that time had, not only nuclear powered carriers and submarines, but also a number of nuclear powered surface combatants. Since then, the Navy has backed away from nuclear power except for subs and carriers. After serious consideration, the Coast Guard decided they could not maintain a cadre of nuclear trained engineers.
Nuclear power is very expensive, especially if you take into account the cost of disposing of the waste at the end of the vessels life.
There is also the consideration that nuclear powered ships are not welcome at all ports.
We have apparently succeeded in providing sufficient endurance for the Polar Class icebreakers that they could winter over in Antarctica if necessary, so it does not appear there is a strong case for nuclear powered icebreakers.
“Leasing options, both foreign and domestic”:
The question of leasing has come up repeatedly in Congressional hearings. The options are limited and none can do what the Polar Star can do when its operational. The Coast Guard has decided to invest in keeping the Polar Star operational until the second PSC is fully operational.
Should the Polar Star have a catastrophic failure that leaves her stuck in the ice the Coast Guard have to hustle to find a way to get her out, but the same would apply to any leased icebreaker.
There might be an opportunity to lease vessels to fulfill the Medium PSC role, but so far the Coast Guard has not moved in that direction.
“Identify partner nations with proven foreign shipbuilding capability and expertise in icebreaker construction.”
I think the Coast Guard has done that. Building Coast Guard icebreakers in a foreign yard is against established policy and would probably be a non-starter politically–too many jobs at stake. In developing the PSC the Coast Guard cooperated with Canada and it appears sought advice around the world.
The Coast Guard is probably ready to answer this memorandum. Most of these questions were addressed in preparation for the PSC contract. I don’t think there is anything here that will require a contract modification to the existing PSC program.
Still, I am a bit mystified by the basing question.

Thanks to the readers alerted me to this topic and particularly Tups who found the original memorandum.

14 thoughts on “Memorandum on Safeguarding U.S. National Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions

  1. While I can understand why nuclear power comes up from time to time when talking about future USCG icebreakers, I think it’s simply too expensive for a number of factors.

    Would an icebreaking oiler be a realistic cost-effective alternative to extending the PSC’s autonomy time in the high Arctic without having to return to base? I’m not talking about merely “ice-strengthened”, but one with about the same icebreaking capability as USCGC Healy. The technology is already in service in commercial shipping. Such vessel could also support future US Navy missions to ice-covered waters.

    • Polar Star and I am sure the PSC have ample fuel capacity for themselves. We have been operating without the additional bases for a long time. I think the drive for bases is to support Navy operations in the Arctic, but as yet the Navy does not have any ice class surface vessels. An icebreaking oiler would make sense if they did. New Zealand just took possession of an ice-class underway replenishment vessel. They do have a strong interest in Antarctica.

    • We’re gonna need more than 6 icebreakers.
      There, it’s out in the open.
      2, better 3, mediums for the Lakes. At least 6, maybe 8 heavies. Have some “Artic-only” with at least SeaRam mounted with the Mk. 38s. Possibly torpedoes and/or ASCMs.
      Have the Navy ice-harden some new ships.

  2. Strictly my opinion, but I think the President’s leadership style encompasses challenging his staff to look beyond convention and being more strategic/big-picture oriented.

    He probably sees Russia’s nuclear Icebreakers and China building, and wants to explore if the US is missing something by not using nuclear power. That said, the expense and trouble deactivating ex-CVN-65 is a big lesson. Of course the US has built over 100 (close to 200?) SSNs and SSBNs over the years and continues to pay that price because of the exceptional benefits. It should all come down to scale of benefit vs. high costs involved. My thought is it will probably be too expensive, but I keep an open mind…

    As far as basing, hitting “the Easy button” would be stationing at Kodiak and Portsmouth for, I hope, obvious reasons. (Portsmouth is already set up to service nukes due to the SSN facilities, as an interesting twist to the WAGBN possibility.). As far as foreign bases with value for access to the Arctic, Iceland and Norway are likely possibilities in the North Atlantic, but can’t rule out Scotland either. If the thought is a more permanent base near Antarctica, then Australia would be an alternative to NZ, if NZ doesn’t want a permanent (or at least persistent) presence.

    The other take I didn’t see mentioned is that someone has talked to the President about Icebreakers and he took the issue seriously. That’s a refreshing change from the past 30 years of neglect…

  3. If this were remotely serious, they’d pursue this after they get civilian nuclear back off the ground to grow the industrial base and get out of the inflation death spiral that endangers nuke power in general. I think this has more to do with the fact that only NNS has the ability to build one as it stands. The President wants Virginia in play and the only parts that kept it blue are the capitol region and the tidewater. This logic may have been involved in the FFG(X) decision too. You definitely don’t care about getting the Navy to 355 when you have ideas like this one. Just happens to be the Coast Guard at play here. I hope I’m wrong, but I feel like this will be one sentence in debate response or stump speech and then is never heard of again.

  4. I think the key factor would be arming the new Polar Security Cutters adequately first instead of making nuclear-powered USA icebreakers. Ice-strengthening the hulls of FFGX or a few LCS and destroyers also makes sense.

    The USCGC Polar Star can mount two .50cal machine guns, but something more is needed than just machine guns and 20mm Phalanx CIWS. If the USA is serious, it would need a weapon to really reach out and deal some serious damage besides the 57mm Bofors. ESSM VLS tubes might work for anti-surface and anti-air defense. The Saab Lightweight Torpedo might also work as well.

    I too think that a nuclear-powered American icebreaker would be too complex and too expensive, but not impossible to achieve. Guarded by Marines 24/7/365 for the weapons and nuclear reactor, it would need to be underway almost constantly to pay for itself and its price. Having it docked half a year is a waste of Taxpayers’ money.

    This all depends on how aggressive and greedy the Russians and Chinese are towards mining for Arctic for oil, seafood, and minerals. If USA Intelligence Reports state that peer nations will be mighty aggressive, then 24/7 USCG and USN Arctic patrols are required to protect Alaska’s backdoor, and thus a nuclear-powered icebreaker makes logical sense, or an icebreaking oiler as mentioned above. But, any nuclear-powered icebreaker needs adequate defense, and this I believe it should be a Navy icebreaking warship and not a USCG icebreaker. Even angling the bow of the FFGX to cut through ice to make it into an icebreaker makes logical sense than building from scratch.

  5. Chuck,

    I wanted to make the following comment to your post:

    “It appears there is a change in emphasis in icebreaker missions based on the Presidents June 2020 Memo on Safeguarding U.S. National Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions. It seems National Security is replacing Science or at least will have a higher priority. One might ask the question does this move us more towards ports and waterways access for strategic DoD activities and Intelligence goals?

    If so, a vessel with the maneuverability to conduct ice escorts & vessel breakouts and shallow draft is necessary. i would propose a “Mackinaw” like icebreaker, it could reach Nome, AK, for example and Healy cannot. Will the Arctic region presence be year-round or 3-season? National Security requires year round access, but not every asset would need this capability. A mix of capabilities needed to execute the full range of DoD high latitude National Security Missions is more important.

    Will the Arctic presence of a USCG vessel have expectations to perform the “eavesdropping” mission? (require a SCIF space) Yes – and the Coast Guard as a member of the Intel Community can make this key capability integrated into a new “Mackinaw”. Don’t need a 20,000T ship to do this. Just need to be there and the AtoN/Escort/SAR missions would give a CG “Mackinaw” sized vessel the legitimate (non-aggressive) reason to be present. A USCG non-combatant cutter in the Arctic region is much easier to put up in the Arctic without stirring up bad relations with Russia, N.Korea, etc. USCG and United States can always use the secondary ‘Science Mission” to strategically explain the high-latitude presence. The current 240’ Mackinaw breaks ice for 1,000 foot Lakers.

    A Mackinaw concept is significantly less expensive (est. $300M/ship avg.) and perfectly capable in the Arctic ice regions to provide “access” and “listening” capabilities for DoD and Intelligence Agency partners. An upgraded “Mackinaw” provides icebreaking, buoy tending, rescue operations, refueling, etc.

    Bottom Line: National Security missions result in a different vessel than currently used for the science mission (i.e. Healy). The fundamental mission is to provide DoD access to key ports and presence in the Arctic. The current icebreakers were designed for different missions (Conducting science – Healy and providing access for science – PSC) not for escorts, AtoN, cable operations, port security or building infrastructure. The major DoD capability will be the SCIF (same as on the NSC & OPC) and it will readily fit on an updated “Mackinaw” like design..”



    Fred Wilder

    CAPT USCG (ret)

    (850) 566-9368

    • We really don’t need a cover story for our presence in the Arctic. No reason icebreakers in the Arctic could not be armed, since it is our EEZ and the Russians are already militarizing their side of the Arctic Ocean.

      Think this requirement will be addressed with the Medium Icebreakers, what ever they turn out to be. I do expect they will be more powerful than Mackinaw and probably larger. By the Coast Guard definitions Mackinaw does not qualify as a medium icebreaker.

      Adding a SCIF to one or more of the existing Polar Security Cutter design ships should be relatively easy, we just don’t want to take that down to Antarctic. Might need at least one PSC optimized for the Arctic missions to provide presence in the Arctic Winter. That might mean armed with SCIF.

    • Just checked to make sure I remembered how the Coast Guard classifies icebreakers. Heavy are those of 45,000 horsepower (HP) or more, medium 20,000 to 44.999, and light 10,000 to 19,999 HP.

  6. I think a maneuverable icebreaker that can break Arctic ice (single year ice) and reach the ports with a SCIF onboard is not much bigger than a “Mackinaw”. Yes, Mackinaw is smaller than the Healy, but it can break the same ice. Icebreaking is a combination of horsepower and hull design.

    Given we need an Arctic icebreaking capability quickly, it seems to me a “Mackinaw” like cutter could do it. On a grand scale, a PSC for the Artic is not the same as a PSC for the Antarctic. Also, a PSC (as they are being built at VT Halter) doesn’t fit on the East Coast, and significantly reduces all flexibility of its use, when all it needs to do is break single-year ice in the Arctic.

    I am not a Naval Architect, but it seems you could add some parallel mid-body to the Mackinaw, make the bow a more seagoing bow, and BOOM, you have your medium icebreaker closely derived from a platform (Mackinaw) that the USCG already knows how to support and man and at a greatly reduced cost. The infrastructure and training pipelines are already operational since 2005 (Mackinaw commissioning).

    • I also see a need for an Icebreaker homeported on the East Coast or Great Lakes to support construction and resupply for DOD facilities in the Arctic most accessible from the Atlantic.

      It is just that the Coast Guard has been rather inflexible about considering any alternatives to the programs they have been promoting. No alternatives to the cutter program of record seem to have been considered, and they seem wedded to the idea of three heavy and three medium icebreakers, because that is what the high latitude study came up with.

      There needs to be a more constant reevaluation of our needs.

      There is Congressional pressure for a second icebreaker in the Great Lakes. If we get one I think it should be capable of operating in the Arctic during the summer.

      We have the 225 foot WLBs in Alaska and Great Lakes, that have some icebreaking capability. Having more capable icebreakers with buoy tending capability like Mackinaw with the additional capability to host a helicopter would certainly be welcomed.

      Given the ten years it seems to take to bring a new class of ships to life, the age of the WLBs and the even the oldest NSCs we really need to start thinking beyond five years.

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