China’s Undeclared Foreign Policy at the Poles–Lowy Institute

An interesting post on China’s actions and intentions, particularly with regard to Antarctica, from the Lowy Institute, an Australian international policy think tank.

The Chinese government currently spends more than any other Antarctic state on new infrastructure such as bases, planes, and icebreakers. China has doubled its number of bases in Antarctica and now has four research stations, two field camps, and three air fields there, and it is getting ready to build a fifth base in the Ross Sea region, not far from the USA’s McMurdo Station. China has the second largest number of citizens visiting and working in Antarctica. Chinese polar scientists have made significant geographical discoveries and named hundreds of geographical sites. The Chinese Antarctic science programme has fully self-sufficient air, land, and sea capabilities in Antarctica. It has two ice-strengthened vessels operating in Antarctic waters, with a further vessel under construction. China’s icebreaker has circumnavigated the continent twice, mapping uncharted Antarctic waters.

“Breaking Ice: The Next Icebreaker Will Be a Navy-Coast Guard Partnership”–Office of Naval Research

US Coast Guard photo by PO Patrick Kelley

The Office of Naval Research’s online magazine, “Future Force,” has some insights into how they are approaching the task of helping to design the Coast Guard’s new heavy icebreakers.

It also seems to indicate the Navy is increasingly thinking about operating surface ships in the Polar regions and that they are realizing, its very hard.

They are looking at the capabilities of non-ice-strengthened ships in polar regions and at the effects of ice loading. Considering we have been sending National Security Cutters into the Arctic their findings should also be of some interest to us.

Hearing: Coast Guard Requirements, Priorities, and Future Acquisition Plans (FY-2018)


May 18, the Commandant, Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, addressed the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee. The recorded testimony is above. It is fairly long (1h40m). The Commandant’s initial statement, following the introductions, begins at 8m40s and ends approximately minute 14.

The administration’s FY 2018 budget request was not available, but the Commandant was there to discuss future priorities, requirements, and programs. The Department Secretary, General Kelly, is expected to address the Subcommittee on May 24 at 3PM Eastern.

I will just mention a few of the items I thought significant.

Admiral Zukunft noted that Huntington Ingalls has begun cutting steel for NSC #9. Questioned about NSC#10, he said, if it were funded, the Coast Guard would of course use it, but that the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) is the Coast Guard’s #1 priority. His response, that another NSC would have an effect on long-range operating cost, seemed to suggest anticipated significantly lower operating costs for the OPC. Significantly, there has been no mention of reducing the OPC program by one ship to offset the addition of NSC #9. (There is already a strong push to build more NSCs, a bill to authorized a multi-year buy of three more.)

He contended that the Coast Guard has taken a harder hit, due to budget restrictions, than other armed services and would need 5% annual growth and at least $2B annually for Acquisitions, Construction, and Improvements (AC&I). Later he stated that this annual AC&I appropriation would included about $300M annually for shore facilities. He pointed to a need to restore 1100 Reserve Billets and add 5,000 active duty military billets while retaining current levels of Civilian staff.

Apparently the FY2918 budget will begin a program to replace 35 Inland tenders at an estimated cost of approximately $25M each ($875M total). (Even if, in the unlikely event, this program were funded in only five years, that would only average $175M/year, so it is not a big program, but one that should have begun at least a decade ago.)

Cyber security for ports was discussed. The Commandant sees the Coast Guard role as decimating best practices, rather than imposing regulation. We now have a cyber program of record–still very small, two CG Academy graduates going directly into the program. The fact that two billets is worth mentioning, is probably the best indication of how really small the program is. A much smaller pre-World War II Coast Guard probably had more people working on breaking German and Japanese codes. 

Marine Inspection was addressed. The Commandant noted the increased demand for Inspections because 6,000 tugs have been added to inspection program. He noted a need for more stringent oversight of 3rd party inspectors, who in some cases have not been as meticulous as they should have been. He also noted that the US flag merchant fleet, notably the MSC’s Afloat Prepositioning Fleet, will need replacement, which will also raise demand for marine inspectors.

The Commandant also voiced his support for the Jones Act. He noted, we only have three shipyards building Jones Act ships in the US, and their loss would be short-sighted.

There was much discussion about the Arctic and the Icebreaker Fleet. Looks like follow-on funding for icebreaker program (at least after the first) will have to come from CG AC&I rather than the Navy budget. This may be difficult, but it is the way it should be. The chair of committee expressed his reservations about attempting to fund such big-ticket items through the DHS budget. The Commandant stated that the Coast Guard is still considering the acquisition of the commercial Icebreaker Aiviq (but apparently they are doing it very slowly–the chairman of the committee seemed a bit irritated about this).

The committee members seemed to latch onto the idea that the USCG, rather than the Navy, would be responsible for enforcing US sovereignty in the Arctic (which by US definition includes the Aleutians), and seemed to be asking if the Coast Guard was prepared to fight the Russians and/or Chinese in the Arctic. The Commandant suggested instead, that our role was to provide presence in the pre-conflict phase in order assert US sovereignty. He acknowledged that the National Security Cutters are only armed defensively and are not suitable for conventional naval warfare against an enemy combatant.

The Commandant acknowledged that, at some point it may be desirable to arm Polar Icebreakers, meaning they should be built with space, weight, and power reservations for additional weapons.

(I am all for keeping open the option of arming our icebreakers, so that they can defend themselves and do their part, if there is a conflict in a polar region, but there did not seem to be recognition among the Congression Representatives, that an Arctic conflict is most likely to be determined by submarines and aircraft. The icebreakers’ role is likely to be primarily logistical.)

The Commandant apparently does expect that there may be disagreements with regard to the extent of the US authority over certain areas of the Arctic.

In discussing the need for land based Unmanned Air Systems, there was a curious note at minute 40 about go-fast boats going south. Where are they going?

Alien Migrant Interdiction (AMIO). We have gone for seven weeks without a single Cuban Migrant being interdicted. This is because of the end of Wet Foot/Dry Foot Policy. This has allowed reallocation of resources to drug interdiction South of Cuba and human trafficking from the Bahamas

A Congressional Representative, from Texas pointed out there is no CG presence on the Rio Grande River, in spite of it being an international waterway. There was no mention of it, but perhaps he was thinking of the Falcon Lake incident in 2010 when an American was allegedly shot in the head by Mexican drug runners. Maybe something we should reconsider.

The Commandant promised the CG would have an unfunded priority list for FY2018.

Will the CG Again Arm Icebreakers?

USCGC Southwind Commissioning. As built, their armament included two twin 5″/38 mounts, three quad 40mm mounts, six 20mm, depth charge racks and depth charge throwers, and hedgehog ASW rockets. (Wonder how long the sonar dome lasted?)

The Washington Examiner reports 

President Trump’s team could decide to arm future Coast Guard icebreakers in order to counteract Russian cruise missiles in the Arctic, the Coast Guard’s top admiral said following a meeting with the administration.

No statement from the administration, but the Commandant is quoted,

“They understand that it’s good that you have a U.S. Coast Guard that is a military service,” Adm. Paul Zukunft, the U.S. Coast Guard commandant, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday. “So what might an icebreaker of the 21st century need to be? You might want to reserve space, weight and power where you have an offensive and a defensive armed capability as a military service … that could be a future requirement for our icebreaking fleet.”

What Do they Need?:

This rethink seems to have been prompted by the Russian construction of the Project 23550 arctic patrol vessels which are capable of breaking up to 1.5 meters of ice (only one meter continuous) and which are armed with a 76mm gun and have been pictured hosting two containerized cruise missile launch systems. The Russians probably see these as replacements for the Ivan Susanin class, armed icebreakers, although cruise missiles would make a huge improvement in capability.

I have noted, the missile systems may be more for publicity than for actual usage. The first of class has emerged without the missiles installed, but after all, that is the point of the containerized cruise missile system. You can put them on almost anything.

In any case, these two ships, and their possible 16 missiles, do not substantially change the security situation in the Arctic. There have been a substantial number of Russian cruise missile launchers in the Arctic for decades. Their long range aircraft and submarines are far more dangerous. As has been noted, Russia gets a great deal of its wealth from the Arctic and consequently has strong motivation to put military assets in the Arctic. They have been respectful of international law in the region, settling disputes peacefully. Still, if it comes to a fight, they appear to have overwhelming strength in the Arctic, and the Canadians cannot help us very much.

The Arctic may be peaceful now, but these ships may be in service for 50 years and things change. We could even see a conflict over the Antarctic during the life of these ships.

The Commandant’s remarks seem to suggest that Icebreakers will be built “fitted for but not with” weapons. This is probably a wise choice, except that we need more than .50 caliber machine guns, if the Icebreaker is to perform its professed peacetime missions. Like all Coast Guard vessels it needs the ability to forcibly stop vessels of any size even if they refuse to stop. Beyond that, the question is, what do we want to be able to add?

We should recognize that these will be large ships, not just by Coast Guard standards, but by warship standards. The Polar Star is almost 14,000 tons full load. The Healy is over 17,000 tons.  Many Russian Icebreakers are much larger. I will be surprised if the new icebreaker is not at least 20,000 tons full load, so there are a lot of options. 20,000 tons is more than three times as large as the Wind Class icebreaker pictured above (6,500 tons), bigger than a WWII heavy cruiser, twice as large as a Burke class DDG (8,300 to 9,800 tons full load), a third larger than a Zumwalt class DDG (less than 15,000 tons). It may even approach the size of Huntington Ingalls Ballistic Missile Defense ship concept which at one point included 288 vertical launch missile cells (about 25,000 tons full load).

Huntington Ingalls LPD based Ballistic Defense Ship Concept

If we take the “fitted for but not with” approach, then the design process should start with some preliminary design for a fully armed ship, then see where and how much we want to back off. That will free up space for peacetime missions like scientific research. We can then decide how much additional space should be provided in the design for other peacetime purposes. There could be many opportunities for dual use of spaces provided for war fighting systems–magazine spaces as storage, additional birthing and messing, etc.

After a decision is made about systems to be included in the fully equipped design, we should of course figure crew size and provide hotel services accordingly, keeping in mind the crew may have to accept more crowding. It is entirely possible crew size may double as was the case with many warships designed before WWII, when they actually entered combat. Including extra hotel service capacity can also serve a dual purpose, the ability to support more passengers, or perhaps mitigate problems if the ship has to respond to a disaster such as a sinking cruise ship.

The following is a list of possible capabilities we might consider, in more or less, what I see as the priority of the systems, going from mild to wild, from gunboat to ballistic defense ship. All are feasible at this stage in the planning process. As the design develops, we will be closing off options. I will talk about each.

  1. Ship stopper weapons
  2. Navy type helicopters and their special equipment and weapons
  3. Electronic Warfare Systems/ECCM
  4. Self-defense missiles to counter anti-ship cruise missiles
  5. Multi-function radar system with fire control capability
  6. Towed array sonar system
  7. Anti-ship cruise missiles
  8. Local area AAW missile (Mk56 VLS and ESSM)
  9. Mk41/Mk57 vertical launch system
  10. Energy weapons
  11. Anti-Ballistic Missile Radar

Ship Stopper Weapons:

This is a requirement in both peace and war. We have to be able to forcibly stop a ship of any size, even if they refuse to stop, even after warning shots and being fired into. For very small vessels this might be done with a .50 caliber machine gun. If the vessel is a bit bigger maybe a 25 or 30mm gun might work. For any substantial ship we need something more.

Photo: Mk 46 30mm gun mount

As I have expressed several times, a light weight torpedo seems the least impactful effective way to achieve that. We may not need new torpedoes after all. Recently I have seen a statement that the Mk46 Mod5 has an anti-surface capability. The Navy must certainly have reserve stocks in storage given today’s much smaller surface fleet. If they do have an anti-surface capability, even if only against deep draft targets, torpedoes in combination with Mk38 mount(s) for warning shots, is the easiest solution. Before going to Antarctica, the torpedoes themselves could be removed. I doubt there is anything classified about the tubes. There is no requirement that icebreakers going to Antarctica be unarmed, only that they be open for inspection.

Surface Vessel Torpedo Tube, Mk32 mod11

The Mk32 mod 11 fixed single barrel torpedo tube illustrated above weighs only 1160 pounds loaded, is only about 11’4″ long and less than two feet wide. It does need 9’6″ clear space behind the breech for the loading tray. An Icebreaker would probably not have any problem handling these or the more familiar trainable triple torpedo tubes. (Incidentally, the torpedo tubes to include heating systems.)

While not as effective against really large targets, if an older version of the 5″ Mk45 has been declassified it might be paired with a simple electro optic fire control, we could put declassified weapons even the breakers going to Antarctica. Equipped this way, they could be upgraded relatively by adding a more sophisticated fire control system and by upgrading to the latest mod of the Mk45. Any ground combat in a polar region is likely to involve only small units. If a 5″ could be brought within range, it would likely dominate the field.

Navy type helicopters and their special equipment and weapons:

The Polar Icebreaker is of course expected to support a couple of Coast Guard helicopters and probably some type of drone. One of the most versatile weapons systems would be the ability to support a couple of Navy MH60s and MQ-8C drones. The flight deck and hangar requirements will not be much if any different from normal peacetime requirements, but we should not forget the requirement for storage of weapons, other expendables, and support equipment.

Planning for support of Navy helos will probably also facilitate support of Army or Airforce helicopters if contingencies require.

Electronic Warfare Systems/ECCM:

If combat requires access to polar regions, heavy icebreakers are likely to be prized and virtually irreplaceable assets that will justify significant investment in self-defense. Even if we have all three planned heavy icebreakers, we will have many more destroyers, big deck amphibs, and even aircraft carriers. Losing even one may become a strategically important loss.

We can not take ESM/ECCM systems to Antarctica now, but so far these have proven the most effective defense against anti-ship cruise missile. We need to plan to add them.

Self-defense missiles to counter anti-ship cruise missiles:

SeaRAM launcher

While soft kill systems have so far outperformed hard kill systems, this is likely to change. Anti-ship cruise missiles are increasing employing multiple sensors and target recognition systems that will be difficult to fool. A pair of SeaRAM launchers to provide 360 degree coverage and 22 ready rounds seems appropriate. Additionally, like the Phalanx CIWS they are derived from, they are stand alone systems that can engage threats without cueing from other sensors or human decision making.

Multi-function radar system with fire control capability:

A multi-function radar like those on the National Security Cutters and planned for the Offshore Patrol Cutter will improve situational awareness and improve employment of other systems.

Towed array sonar system:

Submarines are the primary warships of the ice covered Arctic region. Both for self defense and for the protection of accompanying vessels, the ability to deploy sonar systems, particularly passive ones could be extremely useful.

I have to wonder how effective long range torpedoes launched from submerged submarines under the ice would be against surface vessels operating in ice. There might be unseen ice ridges extending below the surface that might take the hit.

To me this suggest that subs may have to break through to the surface and launch cruise missiles to engage surface ships in ice fields (this is largely speculation so don’t take it as proven).

Anti-ship cruise missiles:

The concept of distributed lethality suggests putting cruise missiles on virtually everything (“If it floats, it fights.”) There is no reason that should not include icebreakers. Again not something we want to take to Antarctica, but an option that perhaps should be left open.

Harpoon and ESSM on Danish Navy Absalon class Support Ship. This area supports 16 Harpoon and 36 ESSM launchers.

It should not be too difficult to provide an open space like the one pictured above for the future mounting of weapons. In the mean time it could serve as a flex deck for mounting experiments and other modular systems.

Local Area AAW Defense (Mk56 VLS and ESSM):

Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile can extend a layered defense around own ship and provide a degree of protection for ships and facilities that may be near the ship.

Mk41/Mk57 vertical launch system:

This is near the bottom of my priority list, but providing the space for this may require little more than converting a cargo hold. It doesn’t even have to be very deep. They are at most 26 feet high, meaning perhaps three decks down or only two decks deep and some protrusion above the deck. These can support Sea Sparrow, Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), Vertical Launch Anti-Submarine Rocket (VL–ASROC), all the various Standard Missiles, and Tomahawk cruise missile.

The strike length Mk41 and particularly the 57 VLS are likely going to be able to launch any future USN surface launched anti-ship or land-attack missile for the life of the new icebreakers. These ships could make a contribution to the concept of distributed lethality.

Unless we see my last possible system added, the icebreakers are unlikely to be able to use the capabilities of a Standard Missile independently, but systems are available that would permit cooperative engagement in which a unit, such as an airborne early warning aircraft, could make a detection and take control of a missile launched from a surface unit.

Energy weapons:

Certainly not something for the near future, but an electrically powered icebreaker might be a good candidate for high energy weapons like lasers and rail guns because they will generate so much electricity. Diverting power from propulsion to weapons sounds very “Star Trek” but it is being worked on right now

Anti-Ballistic Missile Radar:

The AN/SPY-6 (v) is the new generation Air and Missile Defense Radar. It is to be used on the Arleigh Burke Flight III destroyers. In this installation it is a major improvement over the existing AN/SPY-1 installations, but because it is scalable being made up of independent Radar Modular Assemblies (RMAs), it would actually benefit from a larger installation than will fit on the new Burke class ships. Consequently Huntington Ingalls has proposed using the LPD-17 class hull for a missile defense ship.

The Polar Icebreaker is likely to be much larger than the Burke Flight III ships and may approach the size of the LPD-17 class and could be designed to accept the radar if the needed.

Do we now or will we in the future require an icebreaking missile defense ship in the Arctic? Not my area, but if we are worried about Russian missiles coming across the pole, the geography looks favorable.


At this point, “arming” Polar Icebreakers could mean a lot of things.

Hopefully these ships will live out their lives in a peaceful world and will never need to be substantially better armed than they come out of the building yard, but hedging our bets with reserved space, weight, and stability margins is smart.

Keeping some of these options open may cost very little. Hope we choose wisely.


Icebreakers and Motherships at SNA 2017

Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian interviews General Dynamics NASSCO’s Tom Wetherald regarding its US Coast Guard icebreaker and US Navy ship programs with during the 29th Surface Navy Association Symposium in Arlington, Virginia.

Interestingly NASSCO, like Eastern, teamed with VARD to develop their icebreaker concept.

Notably I see not weapons or positions for weapons on the icebreaker concept.

It may be good news for us that more Expeditionary Sea Bases (formerly “Afloat Forward Staging Bases”). It is likely one will go to to SOUTHCOM and may be available to support counter drug operations.

World’s Largest Marine Protected Area Established in the Ross Sea (Antarctica)


A Marine Protected Area (MPA) has been established in the Ross Sea off Antarctica and South of New Zealand. The area is very large, 1.55M sq kM, the largest Marine Protected Area in the world. That is about the same size as the US East Coast EEZ, larger than the West Coast EEZ and 72% of it is no take area.

We have seen that New Zealand has been doing fisheries patrols off Antarctica, but they only have two Offshore Patrol Vessels. Who is going to enforce these new restrictions? There seem to be many areas where regulations are imposed, but enforcement is inadequate or non-existent.

I am quoting the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) news release in full below:

The world’s experts on Antarctic marine conservation have agreed to establish a marine protected area (MPA) in Antarctica’s Ross Sea.

This week at the Meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Hobart, Australia, all Member countries have agreed to a joint USA/New Zealand proposal to establish a 1.55 million km2area of the Ross Sea with special protection from human activities.

This new MPA, to come into force in December 2017, will limit, or entirely prohibit, certain activities in order to meet specific conservation, habitat protection, ecosystem monitoring and fisheries management objectives. Seventy-two percent of the MPA will be a ‘no-take’ zone, which forbids all fishing, while other sections will permit some harvesting of fish and krill for scientific research.

CCAMLR Executive Secretary, Andrew Wright, is excited by this achievement and acknowledges that the decision has been several years in the making.

“This has been an incredibly complex negotiation which has required a number of Member countries bringing their hopes and concerns to the table at six annual CCAMLR meetings as well as at intersessional workshops.

“A number of details regarding the MPA are yet to be finalised but the establishment of the protected zone is in no doubt and we are incredibly proud to have reached this point,” said Mr Wright.

CCAMLR’s Scientific Committee first endorsed the scientific basis for proposals for the Ross Sea region put forward by the USA and New Zealand in 2011. It invited the Commission to consider the proposals and provide guidance on how they could be progressed. Each year from 2012 to 2015 the proposal was refined in terms of the scientific data to support the proposal as well as the specific details such as exact location of the boundaries of the MPA. Details of implementation of the MPA will be negotiated through the development of a specific monitoring and assessment plan. The delegations of New Zealand and the USA will facilitate this process.

This year’s decision to establish a Ross Sea MPA follows CCAMLR’s establishment, in 2009, of the world’s first high-seas MPA, the South Orkney Islands southern shelf MPA, a region covering 94 000 km2 in the south Atlantic.

“This decision represents an almost unprecedented level of international cooperation regarding a large marine ecosystem comprising important benthic and pelagic habitats,” said Mr Wright.

“It has been well worth the wait because there is now agreement among all Members that this is the right thing to do and they will all work towards the MPA’s successful implementation,” he said.

MPAs aim to provide protection to marine species, biodiversity, habitat, foraging and nursery areas, as well as to preserve historical and cultural sites. MPAs can assist in rebuilding fish stocks, supporting ecosystem processes, monitoring ecosystem change and sustaining biological diversity.

Areas closed to fishing, or in which fishing activities are restricted, can be used by scientists to compare with areas that are open to fishing. This enables scientists to research the relative impacts of fishing and other changes, such as those arising from climate change. This can help our understanding of the range of variables affecting the overall status and health of marine ecosystems.

Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee Hearing on Coast Guard Arctic Implementation Capabilities 7/12/16

In referring to this video I will identify the position on the recording in the format h-hours (omitted for the first hour), m-minutes, and s-seconds (may be omitted) as 1h22m45s would indicate one hour, 22 minutes and 45 seconds into the video. 

Note: it doesn’t really start until 10m24s

On July 12, 2016, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Coast Guard and Maritime Transporttion Subcommittee held a hearing on “Coast Guard Arctic Implementation Capabilities.”

Witnesses were:

  • ADM. Charles Michel, Vice Commandant United States Coast Guard
  • Ms. Allison Stiller Principal Civilian Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Research, Development and Acquisition United States Navy Department of Defense
  • Ms. Jennifer Grover Director Homeland Security and Justice Issues United States Government Accountability Offic
  • Mr. Ronald O’Rourke Specialist in Naval Affairs Congressional Research Service
  • Ms. Heather A. Conley Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic Center For Strategic and International Studies
  • Mr. Matthew O. Paxton President Shipbuilders Council of America

Admiral Michel’s written statement for the subcommittee can be found here.

Mr. O’Rourke’s written statement can be found here. For background you might also reference his earlier report. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress Ronald O’Rourke Specialist in Naval Affairs May 27, 2016


The discussion was wide ranging. Topics inluded:

  • Gaps in icebreaker availability and coverage
  • US Shipyard building capacity
  • US Defense requirements in the Arctic
  • Arctic infrasturcture
  • The possibility of leasing or chartering
  • The possibility of a “block buy”
  • Medium Icebreakers
  • The possibility of a Mass Casualty incident in the Arctic
  • Single mission vs Multi-mission ships!
  • Military vs Civilian construction standards

I’ll try to comment on some of this. It is the nature of the hearing process that topics may be revisited at any point in the hearing, so it may a bit difficult to follow any particular topic.


It was not a specific topic of discussion, but a high level of frustration was apparent throughout the proceeding. It was evident in Representative Hunter’s opening remarks. Check out the sarcasm at minute 13. This was followed shortly by Representative Garamendi’s remarks about the extent of planning that has failed to bear fruit. (15m30sec). There are more comments throughout the hearing. The comments between the representatives and the Vice commandant get particularly hot about 1h57m. One representative went so far as to call one of the Vice Commandant’s answers “bull shit.”

The “Gap(s)”

There was much talk about the gap. This usually referred to the expected gap between the projected end of service life for the Polar Star and the delivery of the new Polar Icebreaker (PIB), which may begin as early as 2020 or as late as 2023 and should end in 2026 with the delivery of the PIB. But if you consider the new PIB will be fully operational only in 2028, this gap may be anywhere from five to eight years. But this is not the only gap.

We want heavy icebreakers because of their capacity to operate in the Arctic year round. As long as we only have one heavy and one medium icebreaker, we will never do that, because the Heavy will always be sent to Antarctica during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, while the medium icebreaker will be sent to the Arctic during the summer, so there will be a seasonal gap in the Arctic. We will never have “assured year round access to the Arctic” as long as we only have two icebreakers.

Because we deploy only one icebreaker to the Arctic and only one to the Antarctic there is always a gap in the capability to come to the aid of one of these icebreakers. This is a particularly serious concern with regard to sending the Polar Star to the Antarctic. There is of course great distance, and because it is probably the most capable icebreaker sent to Antarctica, it is also the most capable of getting itself in the deepest trouble. the Additionally the Polar class have never been particularly reliable.

The remaining gap that might be discussed is the difference between what we have and the three heavy and three medium icebreakers we have been saying we need.

Currently there is “No plan to address the gap” (58m). While the Vice Commandant says we are looking into alternatives, he suggests that a rolling life extension (spreading the work over successive yard periods) for Polar Star, rather than a renovation of Polar Sea appears the most likely way to retain a heavy icebreaker in service. That would of course be no improvement over our current situation (2h13m).

Three U.S. Navy icebreakers push an iceberg to clear a channel leading to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, 1965

Building Capacity:

Mr Paxton (President Shipbuilders Council of America) reported that there are ten US shipyards interested in building the PIB, and they have a demonstrated capability to work steel exceeding the thickness and quality required for Polar Icebreakers  (m44-48).


Ms. Conely’s (Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic Center For Strategic and International Studies) prepared testimony suggest that in terms of our defense posture in the Arctic, we have been living on good luck and borrowed time (m37-44). She heavily emphasized the need for infrastructure in the Arctic. I was a bit surprised at the apparent depth of concern among the Representatives for defense operations in the Arctic.

There were several unfavorable references to the comparison between our icebreaker fleet and the Russian’s, but that was mitigated somewhat by explanations for the Russian’s greater interest in the Arctic. Still the tone was that we were well behind.  Additionally Representative Young expressed frustration that he had seen no progress in addressing his concern about military aspects of security (1h21m).

Discussion of Defense in the Arctic lead perhaps inevitably to questions of “Why isn’t this a Navy mission?” and a discussion of the need for Military specs for Icebreakers?  (1h3m)


There was somewhat surprising support for creation of infrastructure in the form of a deepwater port and airfield (1h45m).


Can the Coast Guard operate leased or chartered vessels?

Ms Grover indicates that to perform certain Coast Guard mission, the vessel needs to be a “public vessel” meaning government owned or a demise (bare boat) charter (31m).

Demise charter is a contract whereby the ship owner leases its vessel to the charterer for a period of time during which the whole use and management of the vessel passes to the charterer. In such a situation, the charterer pays all expenses for the operation and maintenance of the vessel. Officers and crew become servants of the charterer. A demise charter whereby the charterer has the right to place its own master and crew on board of the vessel is called a bareboat charter.

The Vice Commandant reported that the Coast Guard had been unable to locate any heavy icebreakers available for lease or purchase and that while there were single misssion medium icebreakers built to commercial standards available there were no multi- mission icebreakers suitable for military service “without a major refit.” (55m)

There was also testimony that normally leasing would cost more than purchase over the long term. Mr O’Rourke clarified that a shorter term arrangement that he referred to as a charter was a possibility and it had been done in the past (1h53m).

It appears to me we find ourselves in an unusual circumstance. We definitely have a gap in our capabilities, and while I would agree that leasing is usually more expensive than ownership, we find ships sitting idle while their owners have abandoned the purpose for which they were built. They might be available at favorable terms.

Actually, we have a recent example of a civilian owned icebreaker being first chartered and then purchased outright for naval service.

The Royal Navy’s HMS Protector (A173) required a refit of only ten days to convert it from Norwegian civilian icebreaker. The ship was initially chartered for three years in 2011 but was then purchased outright in 2013. Over her relatively short life as a Royal Navy vessel in addition to icebreaking she has done SAR, fisheries patrols, inspection of research stations to ensure compliance with the Antarctic Treaty, resupply,  hydrographic survey operations, performed training for humanitarian assistance, and patroled to demonstrate sovereignty in the waters around Britain’s South Atlantic Overseas territories.

The Navy has a lot of experience chartering ships, including having them modified for naval service.

Block Buy:

Mr. O’Rourke’s prepared testimony primarily addressed the possibility of a block buy purchase of two or more heavy icebreakers (33m to 37m). His opinion is that a block buy of two heavy icebreakers would save at least $100M and perhaps as much as $200M.

The Vice Commandant stated he could only support the construction of one heavy icebreaker (1h8m). I find it hard to understand why our leadership cannot simply state they would welcome additional resourses. (There is a pattern here, I saw the same thing happen in another hearing.) No one expects Coast Guard admirals to establish priorities across all government programs, that is the job of the civilian Administration and Congress, but when asked, if we would like more assets, and particularly if there is already an established requirement for more assets, why not say yes? It is after all other peoples’ job to decide if it will fit in the budget.

The idea of a block buy was generally well recieved. By the end of the hearing Representative John Garamendi stated that it appeared to make the most sense to proceed with block buy of two (or three) icebreakers (2h8m). He ask for assistance with the wording to be inserted into a bill to authorize a block buy. “I’m in the mode to make a decision.” (2h10m)


Canadian shipbuilder Davie’s proposal (pdf) to convert the Aiviq for the Canadian Coast Guard

Medium Icebreakers:

There is as yet, no idea when there will be a budget request for new construction medium icebreakers. The planning process is just beginning. We will build heavy icebreakers first, with the first completed by perhaps 2026. It will probably be four years more for the second and third. We probably cannot expect new construction medium icebreakers before 2032, sixteen years from now. We are not likely to see three medium icebreakers until 2034.

Two civilian owned medium icebreakers that do appear to be available are the M/V Aiviq and a similar partially completed icebreaker.

When the Vice Commandant stated that there were none available for lease or purchase suitable for military service without substantial refit (1h51m), that is not a final answer. It really just the start of a discussion. Considering the two potentially available domestically built icebreakers, what would be required to bring them up to our minimum standards? What would it cost?  We should keep in mind that, we may have higher standard in mind for future icebreakers, but the icebreakers we currently have are not really built to current Naval Vessel Rules. If we were to assume that a new medium icebreaker will cost approximately $500M and last for forty years then, using simple math, we should be willing to pay at least $62.5M to have this capability for five years (actually it should be worth substantially more given the discounted value of money spent in out years). If we could get 20 years out of them, it should be worth $250M Apparently there is already a proposal on the table to convert the Aiviq (1h57m30s).

Single Mission vs Multi-Mission?

The Vice Commandant seemed to indicate that the Coast Guard only operates multi-mission vessels, and while I would agree that it is true, I would add that they are multi-mission because of there crews–their authorities, their skills, and their initiative.

In fact many of our vessels are single mission by design. In addition to buoy tenders and construction tenders I would include our existing icebreakers. That they incidentally do other missions as well, would also apply to any civilian owned vessel we might bring into Coast Guard service.

Does it take a military vessel?

There was a substantial discussion (1h59m30s) about whether we need a “military vessel” to do this job. I would start by saying any Coast Guard manned vessel is automatically a military vessel, by virtue of its crew. We have lots of vessels that don’t look very military, and are not built to military standards, but that does not mean they are not military.

If you have read much of my stuff, you would know that I would welcome ships with more military character, but I also recognize that the ships we have have doing icebreaking now are not particularly “military” by design. Shortly after the Polar Star was commissioned, she came down to Fleet Training Group San Diego, where I was the CG liaison officer, for a short training assist. Really her military characteristics were unimpressive at best. Additionally, the ability to launch a boat, so necessary for many CG missions was actually dangerous in anything other than relatively calm conditions.

Mass Casualties in the Arctic: 

There was a great deal of interest in the preparations for the possibility of mass casualties if something should go wrong during the planned Northwest Passage cruise of the Crystal Serenity (1h14m).

Bringing the Polar Sea Back into Service:

As noted above, the Vice Commandant tentatively expects that in order to maintain a heavy icebreaker capability, the most likely solution appears to be a rolling life extension of the Polar Star, rather than renovation of the Polar Sea. He noted that the repair of the Polar Star cost $7M and that bringing back the Polar Sea would be a multiple of that.

Still, extending the life of Polar Star leaves with no improvement over the current situation:

  • no year round capability in the Arctic
  • no rescue capability in the Antarctic
  • a complete loss of Heavy icebreaker capability should the Polar Star suffer a major machinery casualty

To obtain those capabilities before the new PIB is operational, we need to bring Polar Sea back into service in addition to keeping Polar Star operational. Trying to restore the Polar Sea to her original condition is probably not realistic. The equipment is just too old.

Still it might be possible to do a major renovation that would make the ship as capable and more reliable than the Polar Star.

How much should it be worth to us. Logically, we would want to have it last until the third new PIB is operational (and keep the Polar Star on line until the second PIB is complete). That means the Polar Sea would need to last until at least 2030, maybe a bit longer.

If a heavy icebreaker with a service life of 40 years is worth $1B, then getting perhaps 15 years out of a major renovation may be worth up to $375M.

Expected Reports: 

According to the testimony, by now, the Congress should have in their hands a new report on the condition of the Polar Sea and what it will take to fix it. For some reason I doubt that that will include the possibility of a major renovation.

By the end of the year, the Coast Guard has promised Congress a report that will include a suggested way to proceed, including a determination of what to do with Polar Sea.


Is it any wonder the committee member’s patience is wearing thin?

It appears that we will continue to have only one heavy and one medium icebreaker until the new PIB is completed, hopefully in 2026, but even then it will not be fully operational until 2028.

Authorization for at least a two ship block buy appears likely.

Unless we change course, we are unlikely to reach a six icebreaker fleet until at least 2034.

What we might do:

If the Congress and and Administration really want to fix this, there are options, but it will take money. In addition to AC&I funds, it would also require additional operating funds and more personnel, both for the crews, and for support personnel, in addition to funding the ships themselves. We certainly should not sacrifice the Offshore Patrol Cutter program for this capability.

If  the Congress and Administration want to get as close as possible to our professed need for three heavy and three medium icebreakers, we could conceivably have two heavy and three medium in six years of less.

That would require that keep Polar Star on line, that we bring back the Polar Sea, and that we obtain the two medium icebreakers currently available in the near term, the Aiviq and the still unfinished vessel that was being built by Edison-Chouest, and make those changes necessary to bring them into Coast Guard service.

What would this allow us to do?

  • Have a medium icebreaker available in the Arctic during the summer, as we do now.
  • Have a heavy icebreaker and a medium icebreaker available in the Arctic during the winter, something we do not currently do.
  • Have a heavy icebreaker in the Antarctic during the summer as we do now, but accompanied by a medium icebreaker.

A Warning: 

Given the tone I heard from the Representitive, if we are not careful, and do not start showing more enthusiasm for the mission, we may find the icebreaking mission transferred, in whole or in part, to the Military Sealift Command.