“Meet the neglected 43-year-old stepchild of the U.S. military-industrial complex” –Los Angeles Times

Great article from the Los Angeles Times about the trials, tribulations, (and joys) of being on the Polar Star, recounting her three and a half month 2018/2019 Deep Freeze.

And once again she goes into the dry dock in Vallejo, California, rather than a yard in her homeport (for 5 months). If you add it up, she spends more time in Vallejo than her homeport (3.5 months). Since she is being drydocked every year, maybe it is time to move the families closer to the shipyard. According to the article she is expected to continue in service another seven years.

“More US Military Power Needed in Antarctic to Deter Malign Activity, General Says” –Military.com

The Coast Guard Icebreaker program is getting support from an Airforce General. Military.com reports Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Charles Q. Brown is seeing signs that Great Power competition may be coming to Antarctica.

“The Arctic … is kind of a precursor to the way I look at the Antarctic,” Brown said. “The capabilities that we have in the Arctic are the same capabilities that we probably want to have in the Antarctic. And when I look at the competition, and the melting ice in the Arctic, and the competition with both Russia and China … we’ve got to pay attention to that,” he said.

Brown said he believes the South Pole “is just a number of years” away from being the same kind of focal point of competition for Russia and China that the Arctic is now.

While the treaty bans militarization and weapons use on the continent, it allows for the flow of military personnel and equipment into the region. In 1998, an additional measure was added to the treaty, called the “Protocol on Environmental Protection,” which stipulates that “any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.”

That measure is set to expire in 2048, Brown said. The general hinted there already may be non-sanctioned activity taking place in the region.

At some point in the future one of the several nations with interests in Antarctica is going to try to act on a claim to this the last land on earth without a recognized sovereign authority. When that happens we are going to see a land rush and likely a clash of some sort. When the Antarctic treaty was signed, seven sovereign states had already made claims to Antarctic territory. There were already conflicting claims between the UK, Argentina, and Chile. The US and USSR (Russia now as its successor) reserved the right to make future claims. Since then, three additional South American countries have declared that they have interests there, and China has taken advantage of the provisions of the treaty to allow it to become a major player in Antarctica.

Antarctica has been seen as a zone of peace, but unless a treaty can be negotiated that would allow it to be exploited as a condominium, to me it has the makings of a powder keg. 

High Latitude Challenges from Russia and China

Map of the Arctic region showing shipping routes Northeast Passage, Northern Sea Route, and Northwest Passage, and bathymetry, Arctic Council, by Susie Harder

Two recent articles, first from the Institute for the Study of War, a discussion of how the Russians appear to be following the lead of the Chinese in the South and East China Seas by militarizing the Arctic and attempting to thwart the concept of innocent passage just as they have at the Kerch Strait connecting the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea.

Keep in mind the Navy had asked the Coast Guard to provide an icebreaker to conduct a Freedom of Navigation Exercise in the Arctic, but the Coast Guard felt it would be unable to provide because of the state of the icebreaker fleet.

It also considers the apparent frienemy relationship between Russia and China. Russia needs China’s investment, but distrust China’s long term motivation.

Thanks to Sven for bringing this to my attention

Second, an article from the US Naval Institute discussing Chinese ambitions in the Arctic and Antarctica, “China’s Activities in the Polar Regions Cannot Go Unchecked.”

Apparently they are planning a permanent airport in Antarctica.

“Beijing claims the new airfield would support scientific research and economic tourism. But like many overseas Chinese facilities, it could be quickly, easily, and covertly repurposed for military use.”

‘The Chinese government currently spends more than any other state on new Antarctic infrastructure—bases, planes, and icebreakers intended to underpin China’s claimed Antarctic resource and governance rights.”

In the Arctic, China is making,

“strategic investment in infrastructures and resources that may serve military or security as well as commercial purposes (but which often make little economic sense), and scientific research that advances both military and commercial interests.”

It appears the Chinese, in addition to their interests in the Arctic for transportation and resource exploitation, may be positioning themselves to make extensive claims in Antarctica when the current treaty system expires in 2048 or if it should be annulled earlier.

Frankly I feel we are going to see a land rush in 2048, with all the craziness that can bring.

“Nation’s only heavy icebreaker returns home following 105-day Antarctic trip” –PACAREA

Below is a PacArea news release quoted in full. Sounds like a tough deployment, but they had the talent to pull it off.

united states coast guard

News Release

March 11, 2019
U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area
Contact: Coast Guard Pacific Area Public Affairs
Office: (510) 437-3375
After Hours: (510) 816-1700
Pacific Area online newsroom

Nation’s only heavy icebreaker returns home following 105-day Antarctic trip

Nation's only heavy icebreaker returns from Antarctic mission Nation's only heavy icebreaker returns from Antarctic mission Nation's only heavy icebreaker returns from Antarctic mission
Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star at McMurdo Station Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star breaking nice near McMurdo Station, Antarctica Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star escorting the Ocean Giant

Editors’ Note: Click on images to download high resolution version.

SEATTLE — The 150-member crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star returned Monday to their homeport of Seattle following a 105-day deployment to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze.

Operation Deep Freeze is an annual joint military service mission in support of the National Science Foundation, the lead agency for the United States Antarctic Program. Since 1955, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Coast Guard have assisted in providing air and maritime support throughout the Antarctic continent.

This year marks the 63rd iteration of the annual operation. The Polar Star crew departed Seattle on Nov. 27 for their sixth deployment in as many years and traveled 11,200-nautical-miles to Antarctica.

Upon arrival in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, the Polar Star broke through 16.5 nautical miles of ice, six to ten feet thick, in order to open a channel to the pier at McMurdo Station. Once the channel was open, the crew refueled Polar Star at McMurdo Station, the United States’ main logistics hub in Antarctica. At the conclusion of a three day port visit to McMurdo Station the ship provided a six-hour familiarization cruise to 156 McMurdo station personnel.

On Jan. 30, the Polar Star escorted the container ship Ocean Giant through the channel, enabling a 10-day offload of 499 containers with 10 million pounds of goods that will resupply McMurdo Station, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and other U.S. field camps for the coming 12 months. The Ocean Giant is an ice strengthened vessel contracted by the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command for Operation Deep Freeze.

As in years past, getting the 43-year-old Polar Star to Antarctica was accomplished despite a series of engineering casualties aboard the ship. Commissioned in 1976, the cutter is operating beyond its expected 30-year service life. It is scheduled for a service life extension project starting in 2021.

During the transit to Antarctica, one of the ship’s electrical systems began to smoke, causing damage to wiring in an electrical switchboard, and one of the ship’s two evaporators used to make drinkable water failed. The electrical switchboard was repaired by the crew, and the ship’s evaporator was repaired after parts were received during a port call in Wellington, New Zealand.

The impact from ice operations ruptured the cutter’s centerline shaft seal, allowing water to flood into the ship. Ice breaking operations ceased so embarked Coast Guard and Navy Divers could enter the water to apply a patch outside the hull so Polar Star’s engineers could repair the seal from inside the ship. The engineers donned dry suits and diver’s gloves to enter the 30-degree water of the still slowly flooding bilge to effect the vital repairs. They used special tools fabricated onboard to fix the leaking shaft seal and resume ice breaking operations.

The Polar Star also experienced ship-wide power outages while breaking ice in McMurdo Sound. Crew members spent nine hours shutting down the ship’s power plant and rebooting the electrical system in order to remedy the outages.

On Feb. 10, the crew spent nearly two hours extinguishing a fire in the ship’s incinerator room while the ship was approximately 650-nautical-miles north of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. The fire damaged the incinerator and some electrical wiring in the room was damaged by fire fighting water. There were no personnel injuries or damage to equipment outside the space. Repairs to the incinerator are already scheduled for Polar Star’s upcoming inport maintenance period.

Presently, the U.S. Coast Guard maintains two icebreakers – the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is a medium icebreaker, and the Polar Star, the United States’ only heavy icebreaker. If a catastrophic event, such as getting stuck in the ice, were to happen to the Healy in the Arctic or to the Polar Star near Antarctica, the U.S. Coast Guard is left without a self-rescue capability.

By contrast, Russia currently operates more than 50 icebreakers – several of which are nuclear powered.

Reserved for Operation Deep Freeze each year, the Polar Star spends the Southern Hemisphere summer breaking ice near Antarctica, and when the mission is complete, the Polar Star returns annually to dry dock in order to complete critical maintenance and repairs in preparation for the next Operation Deep Freeze mission. Once out of dry dock, the ship returns to Antarctica, and the cycle repeats.

The Coast Guard has been the sole provider of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability since 1965, and is seeking to increase its ice breaking fleet with six new polar icebreakers in order to ensure continued national presence and access to the Polar Regions.

In the fiscal year 2019 budget, Congress appropriated $655 million to begin construction of a new polar security cutter this year, with another $20 million was appropriated for long-lead-time materials to build a second.

In response to the demands of the region, the service is set to release an updated version of its Arctic Strategy, which Adm. Karl Schultz, the commandant of the Coast Guard, is scheduled to discuss March 21 during his annual State of the Coast Guard Address.

“The Coast Guard greatly appreciates the strong support from both the Administration and Congress for funding the polar security cutter program,” said Schultz. “These new cutters are absolutely vital to achieving our national strategic objectives in the Polar Regions – presence equals influence, and we must be present to meet the Nation’s national security and economic needs there in the future.”

Polar Star –Doing the Job, but with Difficulties

USCGC Polar Star. USCGC photo.

While we have this government shutdown, progress on the new Icebreaker (Polar Security Cutter) has certainly slowed, if not stopped entirely. Meanwhile the Polar Star and her crew soldier on. Naval Today reports:

During this year’s deployment, one of the ship’s electrical systems began to smoke, the Coast Guard said, causing damage to wiring in an electrical switchboard, and one of the ship’s two evaporators used to make drinkable water failed.

The ship also experienced a leak from the shaft that drives the ship’s propeller, which halted icebreaking operations in order to send scuba divers in the water to repair the seal around the shaft. A hyperbaric chamber on loan from the US Navy aboard the ship allows Coast Guard divers to make external emergency repairs and inspections of the ship’s hull.

The Polar Star also experienced ship-wide power outages while breaking ice. Crew members spent nine hours shutting down the ship’s power plant and rebooting the electrical system in order to remedy the outages.

No one knows how long the crew can keep her going, but there is a good chance we are going to see serious problems before the new ship is ready.

Thanks to Lee for bringing this to my attention. 

 

Hearing: “Review of Recent GAO Reports on Icebreaker Acquisition and the Need for a National Maritime Strategy”

Note: Apparently as a result of the Government Shutdown, links to the House of Representative’s Website that have been included in this are no longer available and once you get their error message you will no longer be able to back arrow to this site. You will have to reload. Hopefully these link will be reestablished some time in the future, so I have left them in. I have been unable to relocate some of the quotations below to provide more specific citations so I am going to go ahead and publish without them.  

Again, I have to apologize for being late in analysis of a Congressional hearing. In this case it is the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, “Review of Recent GAO Reports on Icebreaker Acquisition and the Need for a National Maritime Strategy” that took place on 29 November, 2018.

The video actually begins at minute 21.

Witnesses were:

  • Rear Admiral Michael J. Haycock, Assistant Commandant for Acquisition & Chief Acquisition Officer, United States Coast Guard  | Written Testimony
  • Rear Admiral Mark H. “Buz” Buzby, USN, Ret., Administrator, Maritime Administration  | Written Testimony
  • Ms. Marie A. Mak, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management, Government Accountability Office  | Written Testimony
  • Mr. Andrew Von Ah, Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues, Government Accountability Office  | Written Testimony
  • Mr. Ronald O’Rourke, Specialist in Naval Affairs, Congressional Research Service  | Written Testimony

Subcommittee members present included:

All five Representatives won reelection, so it is probable we will see them on the Subcommittee next year. Representative Garamendi was clearly excited and optimistic about the becoming chair of the House Sub-Committee. He strongly reports Coast Guard recapitalization. He also expressed a desire to see Rep. Brian Mast return as ranking member.

The two topics were essentially unrelated. We have revisited the topic of the Polar Security Cutter/Heavy Polar Icebreaker numerous times.

GAO is still contending there are Scheduling and Technological risks. They don’t seem to recognize the steps that have been taken to minimize these risks and that the largest scheduling risk is in delaying the start of the project once the detail design is substantially complete. There is real urgency in the need to replace Polar Star and they don’t seem to recognize that. Yes, the Coast Guard might have done a better job, if we had started this project about a decade earlier, and we might have done that if they had not continued to insist we had to keep our AC&I (now PC&I) budget to about $1.1B, but we can no longer afford more delay to achieve a drawn out, risk free, acquisition process.

Mr. O’Rourke once again made the case for block buy vs a contract with options, contrasting the way the Coast Guard has contracted for vessels while the Navy has successfully used Block Buy and Multi-Year contracting for vessels much more complicated than those being procured by the Coast Guard.

The need for a National Maritime Strategy reflected a realization that the US ability to transport military reinforcements to a theater of conflict in American ships with American crews seems to be in jeopardy. We discussed this problem and what the Coast Guard could do about it here.

Rather than reference the exchange on the video above as I have done before, I will just highlight parts of the two source documents, the “Summary of Subject Matter” (a six page pdf) and Congressional Research Service Naval Expert, Ronald O’Rourke’s prepared statement.

Regarding the Polar Security Cutter (Heavy Polar Icebreaker or HPIB), from the summary of subject matter

The Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate is conducting a tailored technical readiness assessment to update the HPIB cost estimate with an estimated completion of June 30, 2019.

The Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate will update the program schedule within three months of the Detail Design and Construction contract award and before awarding construction, as appropriate, with an estimated completion date of September 30, 2019.

The Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate is conducting a tailored technical readiness assessment to analyze and determine schedule risks with an estimated completion of June 30, 2019.

Since presumably much of this work would be done by civilian acquisitions specialist, it is likely the work is falling behind because of the government shut down

Shift in Security Environment; New National Defense Strategy

A Maritime Strategy has not been issued. If it had it would likely need an update given that both the Administration and Geopolitical situation have changed.

Mobility Capabilities and Requirements Study 2018 (MCRS-18)

 DOD states that it started the study, which it refers to as the Mobility Capabilities and Requirements Study 2018 (MCRS-18), on March 8, 2018, and that it is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2018…A September 25, 2017, press report about MCRS-18 states that “Since the early 1990s, Pentagon mobility studies have consistently identified a requirement for about 20 million square feet of roll-on/roll-off capacity to quickly transport material in support of a contingency.” Mobility studies conducted from the 1990s until recently, however, were all done in the post-Cold War era, when U.S. military force planning focused to a large degree on potential crises and conflicts against regional military powers such as Iran and North Korea. Given the recent shift from the post-Cold War era to the new era of renewed great power competition and the resulting formal shift in U.S. military force planning toward a primary emphasis on potential challenges posed by China and Russia, it is not clear that MCRS-18 will leave the figure of 20 million square feet of roll-on/roll-off capacity unchanged. A change in this figure could have implications for the content of a new national maritime strategy.

We have seen no indication of movement on these documents.

Potential Shortfall of Navy Escorts and Possible Impacts on Mariners

 GAO notes MARAD’s September 2017 estimate of a potential shortage of U.S.-citizen mariners available to crew U.S.-owned reserve sealift ships during a crisis or conflict. The challenge of finding adequate numbers of appropriately trained mariners to crew DOD sealift ships in time of crisis or conflict is a longstanding issue, dating back at least to 1990, when mariners in their 50s, 60s, and 70s (and one aged 81), some brought out of retirement, were reportedly needed to help fill out the crews of DOD sealift ships that were activated for Operation Desert Shield (the initial phase of the U.S. reaction to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait). Problems in filling out ship crews reportedly contributed to delays in activating some RRF sealift ships to participate in the operation.  A potential shortage of U.S.-citizen mariners for manning DOD sealift ships in wartime has been a recurring matter of concern since then.

“Was I to die this moment, ‘Want of Frigates’ would be found stamped on my heart.”, Lord Nelson to Earl Spencer, 9 August 1798

Section 1072 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 (H.R. 2810/P.L. 11591 of December 12, 2017) requires the Navy to submit a report on its plans for defending combat logistics and strategic mobility forces—meaning Navy underway replenishment ships, RRF sealift ships, and MSC surge sealift ships—against potential wartime threats. The report is to include, among other things, a “description of the combat logistics and strategic mobility forces capacity, including additional combat logistics and strategic mobility forces, that may be required due to losses from attacks,” an “assessment of the ability and availability of United States naval forces to defend combat logistics and strategic mobility forces from the threats,” and a “description of specific capability gaps or risk areas in the ability or availability of United States naval forces to defend combat logistics and strategic mobility forces from the threats….”

This was brought sharply into focus in a surprisingly frank article in Defense News, dated October 10, 2018, “‘You’re On Your Own’: US Sealift Can’t Count on Navy Escorts in the Next Big War,”

My earlier post talks about what the Coast Guard could do to mitigate this shortfall, but the most significant step would be to bring back the Coast Guard ASW mission. Equipping eleven NSCs and 25 OPCs with ASW systems could make a huge difference.

 

“Government Shutdown Puts Coast Guard Heavy Icebreaker Program at Risk” –USNI

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice around the Russian-flagged tanker Renda 250 miles south of Nome Jan. 6, 2012. The Healy is the Coast Guard’s only currently operating polar icebreaker. The vessels are transiting through ice up to five-feet thick in this area. The 370-foot tanker Renda will have to go through more than 300 miles of sea ice to get to Nome, a city of about 3,500 people on the western Alaska coastline that did not get its last pre-winter fuel delivery because of a massive storm. If the delivery of diesel fuel and unleaded gasoline is not made, the city likely will run short of fuel supplies before another barge delivery can be made in spring. (AP Photo/US Coast Guard – Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis) NY112

The US Naval Institute has a report on the impact of the government shutdown on the Coast Guard and other government agencies, with a close look at what it probably means for the Polar Security Cutter (icebreaker) program.