CRS: “Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter (Polar Icebreaker) Program: Background and Issues for Congress”/ Plus a Note on Great Lakes Icebreaker Procurement

The Congressional Research Service his issued a revised “Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter (Polar Icebreaker) Program: Background and Issues for Congress” updated 9 August 2019.

It includes a short appendix (Appendix E, pp 63-66) on the issue of a potential new Great Lakes icebreaker. The final paragraph of that appendix states:

“An examination of procurement costs for Mackinaw, the National Science Foundation’s ice-capable research ship Sikuliaq, new oceanographic research ships being procured for NOAA, and OPCs suggests that a new Mackinaw-sized heavy Great Lakes icebreaker built in a U.S. shipyard might have a design and construction cost between $175 million and $300 million, depending on its exact capabilities and the acquisition strategy employed. The design portion of the ship’s cost might be reduced if Mackinaw’s design or the design of some other existing icebreaker were to be used as the parent design. Depending on the capabilities and other work load of the shipyard selected to build the ship, the construction time for a new heavy Great Lakes icebreaker might be less than that of a new heavy polar icebreaker.”

If you would like a quick, only slightly out of date (May 2017), summary of world icebreaker fleets, take a look at Fig. B-1, page 40.

“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.