“NORTHCOM Nominee Supports Building New U.S. Arctic Base for Icebreakers” –USNI

The US Naval Institute News service reports that  Air Force Lt. Gen. Glen VanHerck, nominee to the post of NORTHCOM commander, “told a Senate panel he would support placing a base for the Coast Guard’s new icebreaker fleet in the Arctic.”

That could mean different things. Is it a support base or a home base? There has been talk of a base in the Alaskan Arctic for a while now (here and here). The Alaska Congressional delegation would obvious like investment in additional infrastructure in Alaska.

If the thought is that one or more icebreaker should be homeported at a new port in the Arctic, or anywhere in Alaska, that would be a mistake. The benefits of proximity to the operating are proportional to the number of sorties. The fewer sorties to the operating area, the less important. The Polar Security Cutters will probably have the greatest endurance of any ships in the Coast Guard. They will probably deploy to the Arctic only once or twice a year at most. There are a number of other important considerations.

Where will the ships go into dry dock? Ideally, it should be in their homeport. At least there should be good, reasonably priced, frequent transportation between the homeport and the location of the dry dock.

Where will the crew train? Both as teams and as individuals? A lot of training is done at Naval Bases. How easy is it to get there? There are travel costs to consider.

We should consider the quality of life of both the crew and the dependents. Spouses frequently have careers of their own. Families need or want a second income. Will spouses, who want to work, be able to find a job? A good job, in their career field?

For the next few year we can really only consider what will happen to the first three Polar Security Cutters.

  • For logistics and support reasons, we will want to base all three of the first Polar Security Cutters together.
  • We know the first and second will be used primarily in support of operations in Antarctica.
  • Even when we get three, we would not be able to say that number three will never deploy south.

So basing any of the first three PSCs in Alaska is unnecessary, unwise, and perhaps unworkable.

15 thoughts on ““NORTHCOM Nominee Supports Building New U.S. Arctic Base for Icebreakers” –USNI

  1. Home porting a PSC in Alaska would be nuts for all the concerns you noted above.

    Endurance, if my memory is correct from a tour of the Ice Breaker Healy a few years ago their “endurance” in case of problems was a year I was told, in case they get stuck in the ice they have enough food and other supplies to wait until the summer thaw. But they had satellite internet so they can phone home and get movies etc. so not as boring as the past.

  2. I’ll take a devil’s advocate position.

    This is an Air Force General, being contemplated for leading a Joint Command. In that context, he is not necessarily looking at things from a CG perspective. He sees China and Russia increasing fleets and operations in the Arctic, and building a big, new base with lots of strong icebreakers sends a clear message. Combined with increased undersea and “Arctic Lab” operations by the Navy and perhaps flights by the Air Force, the message is: The USA is serious about the Arctic.

    I imagine if this is the point behind the statement or possibly action, the base will last a few years until it stops being a home port and reverts to an operating base (probably around the time the first PSC needs a serious overhaul).

    • We won’t be perceived as serious about the Arctic until we have more than 1.5 functioning Icebreakers. Our only heavy Icebreaker has to make a trip to dry dock after every trip south and is way tired.

      What would make sense to me would be to have some sort of forward supply base a PSC or other CG vessel could resupply at. Maybe Dutch Harbor in the Bearing Sea. Yes a “home port” in Alaska would send some sort of message but not sure where to put it. There is a small base in Kodiak (I think it’s small anyway)

      Easy for the General to say Alaska Home Port until one looks at a map and tries to find a place that would not be a hardship post for the families.

    • My point is a geo-political one. First, get the funding and political will to build them (thank you, Russia and China). Next announce they’ll be based in Alaska (Kodiak is pretty darn big, but not 3 PSCs big, but they all won’t be there simultaneously either). Also, note that there have been discussions about a few different potential arctic bases. Once the PSCs are built, station them there. In reality, the hulls do not have to be there to create pressure. The talking, planning, funding, building, all create pressure. After all, the Russian and Chinese hulls are not built yet, but they created the pressure on the US to build 6 icebreakers….

  3. what is the economy that sustain that fleet of ships? the only thing there are the resources but if you cant use them by political stupidity then why have many icebreakers there?

  4. 6 heavy icebreaker are 3 too many if there wont be any economic activity there and by stupid politician there wont be any economy is USA artic waters so no need for a big fleet of icebreakers to do nothing and taking the few resurces needed for the navy and coast guard much more important priorities not being fulfilled.

  5. I am wondering what exactly the mission would be for the planned medium icebreakers? Healy is doing a lot of sciencey stuff. Is that what the mediums would also do? Show the flag? What exactly?

    The White house memo is asking for things that the mediums haven’t been discussed for: cable laying (?), near peer conflicts (really?). Some out of the box stuff. Of course UUV and UAV would be easy enough to do with a sizeable ship.

    Maybe instead of a fleet of medium breakers could they use several icebreaking tug/patrol boats of around 150 feet (NO not a strengthened FRC) and supported from an expeditionary sea base type ship for summer patrols?

    • Not that I am privy to any of the discussions, but I suspect the medium icebreakers or “Arctic Security Cutters” (a name I recently saw suggested) will do typical patrol cutter functions, but will be able to do them in ice, e.g. law enforcement, SAR, fisheries, MEP etc. Maybe some form of aids to navigation. Plus ice escort for Navy ships if necessary.

      • I brought up the idea of an “Arctic Patrol Cutter” to replace the hodge-podge of arctic cutters the CG has been using many years ago here on Chuck’s blog. I hope the three mediums do turn out to be used for that mission. It would also free up NSCs/OPCs to warmer waters, if the three are dedicated to District 14.

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