The Congressional Research Service has once again updated their look at the Polar Security Cutter (heavy icebreaker) program. (See the latest version here.)
While hindsight suggest that it should have been started much earlier, it seems the program, at least in Congress, is on track with bipartisan support. The first two ships have been funded, and the FY2022 budget includes money for long lead time items for number three.
Two questions have emerged:
- How many icebreakers, and of what type, do we really need?
- Will the delivery of these ships be significantly delayed?
How Many and What Type?:
Until recently the Coast Guard had been justifying the program based on a 2010 “High Latitude Mission Analysis Report” (my summary here) which indicated a requirement for three heavy and three medium icebreakers for the Coast Guard to complete its statutory missions. There have been suggestions that the total of six icebreakers should include four or even six heavy icebreakers, but,
“Starting in January 2021, Admiral Karl Schultz, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, has stated publicly that the Coast Guard would ideally like to have a fleet of six PSCs and three new medium polar icebreakers (which the Coast Guard in late 2020 began referring to publicly as Arctic Security Cutters, or ASCs), for a total fleet of nine PSCs and ASCs.” (p.4)
Reported Delay in Construction Start on First PSC?:
We know Halter Marine had to reinforce some of their facilities, because the Polar Security Cutter will be, on the basis of weight/length, the heaviest vessel they have ever built. But lately, there has been a report, that start of construction has been substantially delayed, and it is unclear if this will impact the planned delivery date.
“Another potential issue for Congress concerns a reported delay in the start of construction of the first PSC. A June 28, 2021, press report states:
“Cutting of steel on the first new Coast Guard heavy polar icebreaker could happen in the coming months, which is close to a year later than originally expected, but the forecast to start production still appears hazy.
“Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said on Monday [June 28] that “They tell me we should be cutting steel on the first articles here in the coming months, so, hopefully there is steel cutting this year and contractually…we’re on contract for that ship [in] late ’24.”…“
“The Coast Guard originally had expected the first PSC to be delivered in the first half of 2024 the potential to accelerate delivery into late 2023. That appears unlikely now given that the start of construction appears to be about a year behind schedule.” (p.13)