“Breaking the Ice: High Stakes in the High North” –RealClearDefense

Real Clear Defense offers a suggestion of how US policy regarding the Arctic should be shaped.

While some decry an “icebreaker gap”…, the real problem is that U.S. policy in the Arctic lacks direction. The United States needs a better approach – a new cooperative arrangement with Russia to protect the environment, maintain peace in the region, and box-out China.

The Coast Guard does need more icebreakers. It does not need nearly as many as Russia. Our thinking needs to consider our access to Antarctica, which, however quiet it may be now, may not always be that way.

“Steer Clear of the Polar Regions” –USNI

 Photo: Official USCG Polar Star Facebook

The US Naval Institute Blog has a new post. Its bottom line,

For Semper Paratus to move beyond a mere slogan, the Coast Guard should steer clear of the Poles, decommission the two heavy icebreakers, and redirect resources toward coastal operations to better secure the homeland. As the smallest armed force, the Coast Guard must proactively roll back the nefarious reach of transnational human smuggling and narcoterrorism for the sake of national security. Leave the Poles to the Navy and to private sector research-and-development firms.

I am not going to comment, but I am sure someone will.

Polar Security Cutters and Coast Guard ASW

The US Naval Institute Proceedings web page has a couple of Coast Guard related articles that did not appear in the print version of Proceedings,

I have reproduced my comments on these topics below.


In regard to arming the Polar Security Cutters (the author seemed fixated on cruise missiles. We did discuss this topic earlier here)

There are limits to what we want to put on ships bound for Antarctica, since they have to be open for inspection. On the other hand if we ever do have a near peer conflict involving the Arctic or Antarctic, these will become rare and essential naval auxiliaries. As such they will probably operate with other vessels, including more powerful warships if appropriate, but that does not mean they should not be able to defend themselves against the possibility of leakers. We need to make provision for last ditch defense with systems like SeaRAM.

Meanwhile the fact that they are law enforcement vessels means they should be able to forcibly stop any private or merchant vessel regardless of size. So far it seems they will have at most, 25mm Mk38 Mod3 guns.

The follow on Medium Icebreakers or Arctic Security Cutters, which are unlikely to go to Antarctica, are more likely to be more heavily armed from the start.


Coast Guard ASW (comments were generally surprisingly adverse):

It is a fact that in WWII most U-boats were sunk by aircraft, but about a third (about 230) were sunk by surface vessels, primarily those of our allies Britain and Canada.

Even when surface vessels did not sink U-boats, they often performed valuable service in blocking access to convoys and in rescuing mariners from sunken ships.

US Naval vessels only sank about 38 U-boats. Coast Guard cutters and Coast Guard manned Navy ships were involved in sinking a disproportionate number of those (ten) for various reasons. Most of the US Navy effort went into the Pacific and most of the USN effort in the Atlantic at least through mid-1943, was in escorting high speed troop convoys than largely avoided contact with U-boats.

Circumstances we will face in any near peer conflict may be very different.

The advantages provided by code breaking in WWII are unlikely.

The advantages provided by radar equipped aircraft detecting U-boats charging their batteries or transiting the Bay of Biscay on the surface during the night no longer exists.

The Chinese surface and air threat would divert the most capable USN assets from ASW tasks.

Unlike the Japanese during the Pacific campaign, the Chinese are likely to make a concerted effort to disrupt our logistics train.

We simply do not have enough ASW assets.

Augmenting Coast Guard cutters to allow them to provide ASW escort and rescue services for ships that are sunk by hostile subs, in lower threat areas, is a low cost mobilization option that can substantially increase the number of escorts at low cost.

This could be facilitated by augmenting cutter with USN Reserves. Navy reserve ASW helicopter squadrons could be assigned to fly from cutters.
LCS ASW modules could be placed on cutters and manned by reactivated Navy reservists with LCS ASW module experience.

Our few US merchant ships need to be protected and when inevitably, some are sunk, we need someone to rescue those mariners, because they have become a rare and precious commodity.

The crews of the Coast Guard Cutters Midgett (WMSL 757) and Kimball (WMSL 756) transit past Koko Head on Oahu, Hawaii, Aug. 16, 2019. The Kimball and Midgett are both homeported in Honolulu and two of the newest Coast Guard cutters to join the fleet. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew West/Released)


In answer to this comment from James M

Add : For (millions)

ASIST : 6.263
Mk 32 SVTT : 3.237
SLQ-25 Nixie: 1.727
AN/SRQ-4 LAMPS III: 4.625
VDS/MFTA combo: 14.802
ASW Combat Suite: 33.684
64.338 total. I am sure something could be arrived at for less. I look at this as what it takes to fit out an NSC the whole way. For one, OPC will never fit that VDS/MFTA on its stern. At best it would be a Nixie, maybe a container towed sonar we don’t yet use, and the mods for MH-60R. It would be good to know the plan for MUSV as it might help the equation. After all, the 64.338 would buy 2 MUSVs without payload. It could also buy an additional FRC.

So, we could equip ASW equip all eleven projected Bertholf class National Security Cutters (NSC) for less than the cost of a single frigate.

Why do you believe the VDS/MFTA would not fit on the Offshore Patrol Cutter? It is fully as large as the NSCs and does not have the boat launch ramp cut into the stern. They are also substantially larger than the LCSs.

OPC “Placemat”

Polar Star Completes Almost Four Months Away From Homeport in the Yard

As with previous Dry Docks, the three pitch propellers were removed, overhauled, and reinstalled. Photo: Official USCG Polar Star Facebook

Naval News reports on the recent availability for USCGC Polar Star.

Much as she has for the last several years, she went into the Mare Island Dry Dock in Vallejo, CA. She spent 16 weeks and two days there completing the first of five planned phased SLEP increments that are expected to keep her in service until service until the second Polar Security Cutter is completed in 2027. Unlike 2019, at least this year she got out of the yard on schedule.

If she is going to spend a majority of her in port time in the San Francisco Bay area, that really should be her homeport.

New Zealand Adds One of a Kind Ice Class Underway Replenishment Vessel

HMNZS Aotearoa Logistics Support Vessel

Naval News reports that the New Zealand Navy has commissioned what I believe is a one of a kind vessel, a Polar class underway replenishment vessel, HMNZS Aotearoa (not that it is an icebreaker, no icebreaking bow).

There is an excellent description of this ship here.

(Anyone know if the Polar Security cutters can do underway replenishment?)

Unlike US Navy replenishment ships, this will be armed and have a military crew.

I doubt the ice-strengthening and winterization really cost a whole lot. With the Arctic opening up, maybe the Navy should be thinking about something like this.

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.

MEMORANDUM FOR THE SECRETARY OF STATE
THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
THE SECRETARY OF COMMERCE
THE SECRETARY OF ENERGY
THE SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY
THE DIRECTOR OF THE OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND
BUDGET
THE ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT FOR NATIONAL
SECURITY AFFAIRS
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.

DONALD J. TRUMP
Commentary:
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.
Conclusion: 
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.

The Forgotten American Explorer Who Discovered Antarctica — and Why It Is Important

USS Vincennes in Disappointment Bay, Antarctica, during the Wilkes expedition. (Public Domain)

Smithsonian Magazine brings us the story of American explorer Charles Wilkes, who while commanding USS Vincennes, was the first to map the coast of Antarctica. They talk about why it is important and why the apparent decline in US interest in Antarctica is dangerous.

As the northern ice melts, the Arctic Ocean is already the scene of international jockeying for mining rights. But as China scholar Anne-Marie Brady has documented extensively, Beijing views Antarctica as the last great terrestrial frontier on Earth, hosting great deposits of coal, natural gas, precious minerals, added to plentiful fish stocks in the surrounding ocean and even vast freshwater reserves locked up in Antarctic ice. China intends to exploit the continent fully once the current Antarctic Treaty expires in 2048, if not sooner. With nations hungry for new sources of oil and mineral wealth, and China laying the groundwork for industrialization of the pole, the stakes for Antarctica couldn’t be higher.

This is why we need icebreakers, and why they have to have provision installing effective self defense weapons. We cannot expect the Antarctic treaty to extend beyond 2048. As soon as one nation withdraws there is going to be a land rush there and it could lead to armed conflict.

As the nation with the greatest historical investment in Antarctica, the U.S. has the resources and authority to lead an international re-commitment to south polar conservation. By reaffirming its leadership role at the pole, America can ensure that the great game of the 21ar century does not repeat the mistakes of those of centuries prior, when the world’s pristine frontiers were fought over and ransacked with little thought for environmental damage, or for what future human generations might do once the last wilderness on Earth melts away.

 

“US’s only heavy icebreaker returns home following 123-day Antarctic Treaty inspection and resupply mission” –News Release

Below is a news release. The unusual part of this, is that Polar Star was involve in inspection of foreign stations in Antarctica. These are the first such inspections since 2012. I certainly doubt there are any problems with the Italian and South Korean stations. Perhaps the Chinese presence bears watching. It is not that I expect they will find a military base, but it would not be surprising to find “dual use” facilities. Systems that could support both scientific activity and possible future military use. This was the way they started on their South China Sea artificial islands. I don’t think we can expect the current treaty to stay in place forever. 

united states coast guard

News Release

U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area
Contact: Coast Guard Pacific Area Public Affairs
Office: (510) 437-3375
After Hours: (510) 816-1700
D11-DG-M-PACAREA-PA@uscg.mil
Pacific Area online newsroom

US’s only heavy icebreaker returns home following 123-day Antarctic Treaty inspection and resupply mission

Rear Adm. Jack Vogt, commander of the 13th Coast Guard district, welcomes the crew of USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) at Base Seattle, Wednesday, March 25. The nation's only heavy icebreaker, during Operation Deep Freeze 2020 the Polar Star created a path through 451.1 nautical miles of ice up to 6 feet thick so that provisioning vessels could reach McMurdo Station, Antarctica. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA3 Michael Clark)
USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) returns to homeport of Seattle A crewmember aboard Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB-10) supervises as mooring lines are passed to the pier on Base Seattle, Wednesday, March 25. The Polar Star crew completed a 4-month deployment to McMurdo Station, Antarctica. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA3 Michael Clark) Rear Adm. Jack Vogt, commander of the 13th Coast Guard district, welcomes the crew of USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) at Base Seattle, Wednesday, March 25. The nation's only heavy icebreaker, during Operation Deep Freeze 2020 the Polar Star created a path through 451.1 nautical miles of ice up to 6 feet thick so that provisioning vessels could reach McMurdo Station, Antarctica. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA3 Michael Clark)

SEATTLE — The 150-member crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star returned Wednesday to their homeport of Seattle following a 123-day deployment to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze.

This mission marks the Polar Star’s 23rd journey to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze, an annual joint military service mission to resupply the United States Antarctic stations, in support of the National Science Foundation – the lead agency for the United States Antarctic Program.  This year also marks the 63rd iteration of the annual operation.

The Polar Star crew departed Seattle on Nov. 27, 2019, for their sixth deployment in as many years and traveled more than 26,350 miles through the North Pacific, South Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans.

In the Southern Ocean, the crew travelled through nearly 500 miles of pack ice and broke through 23 miles of fast ice in order to create a nearly 18-square-mile navigable channel to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.  Because of the efforts of the Polar Star crew, two resupply vessels and one tanker travelled to McMurdo Station unescorted in order to refuel and resupply U.S. Antarctic stations.

This year’s operation required the construction of a temporary, modular mobile causeway to replace an ice pier, which disintegrated during Operation Deep Freeze 2018-2019.  The modular pier required a three-day construction period prior to the offload of supplies, followed by a three-day deconstruction period at the conclusion of the mission.

Three resupply ships required 23 days to offload 19.6 million pounds of cargo and 7.6 million gallons of fuel during this year’s operation, more than doubling the operation duration and capacity as previous years. Together, the three ships delivered enough fuel and critical supplies to sustain NSF operations throughout the year until Polar Star returns in 2021.

Among the cargo offloaded were construction materials for a five-year, $460 million Antarctica Infrastructure Modernization for Science (AIMS) project to recapitalize McMurdo Station, South Pole Station and other American outposts on the continent.  

Additionally, the Polar Star crew also supported a team of U.S. government officials from the U.S. Department of State, National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Coast Guard who conducted a five-day inspection of foreign research stations, installations and equipment in Antarctica.

The United States continues to promote Antarctica’s status as a continent reserved for peace and science in accordance with the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. The inspection serves to verify compliance with the Antarctic Treaty and its Environmental Protocol, including provisions prohibiting military measures and mining, as well as provisions promoting safe station operation and sound environmental practices.

The team inspected three stations: Mario Zucchelli (Italy), Jang Bogo (South Korea), and Inexpressible Island (China). This was the fifteenth inspection of foreign research stations by the United States in Antarctica and the first since 2012.

Inspections emphasize all of Antarctica is accessible to interested countries despite territorial claims and reinforce the importance of compliance with the Antarctic Treaty’s arms control provisions. The United States will present its report on the inspection at the next Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Helsinki, Finland, in May 2020.

“I am very proud of the tenacity of this Polar Star crew,” said Coast Guard Capt. Greg Stanclik, commanding officer of the Polar Star. “158 crew members earned the Antarctic Service Medal during Operation Deep Freeze 2020. The words inscribed on the back of the medal are Courage, Sacrifice and Devotion. Each and every one exhibited the courage to make this 123-day Antarctic voyage, sacrificed time away from their loved ones and devoted themselves to executing this nationally critical mission.”

Commissioned in 1976, the Polar Star is the United States’ only operational heavy icebreaker, capable of breaking ice up to 21 feet thick. Reserved for Operation Deep Freeze each year, the ship spends the winter breaking ice near Antarctica, and when the mission is complete, returns to dry dock in order to conduct critical maintenance and repairs in preparation for the next Operation Deep Freeze mission.

If a catastrophic event, such as getting stuck in the ice, were to happen to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB 20) 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.

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

In April 2019, the Coast Guard awarded VT Halter Marine Inc. of Pascagoula, Mississippi, a contract for the design and construction of the Coast Guard’s lead polar security cutter, which will also be homeported in Seattle. The contract also includes options for the construction of two additional PSCs.

“Replacing the Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet is paramount,” said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area. “Our ability to clear a channel and allow for the resupply of the United States’ Antarctic stations is essential for continued national presence and influence on the continent.”

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.