Sub-Committee Hearing, Coast Guard Modernization and Recapitalization: Status and Future, 26 Sept. 2018

Note, the hearing does not actually begin until time 20:30 on the video above. 

The House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation conducted a hearing on “Coast Guard Modernization and Recapitalization: Status and Future” on September 26, 2018.

You can see the “Summary of Subject Matter” that was prepared for the Congressmen here.

This is the first hearing for both Representative Brian Mast (R-FL) as subcommittee chair and Admiral Karl L. Schultz as Commandant. What I saw looked promising.

The Commandant’s prepared remarks has some items of interest. 

The Commandant announced that he would soon issue a Coast Guard “Strategic Plan 2018-2022”

He referenced the new icebreakers as “Polar Security Cutters.”

This past March, we released a request for proposal (RFP), setting the stage for award of a Detail Design and Construction (DD&C) contract in FY 2019 for the construction of up to three heavy Polar icebreakers. We are as close as we have ever been to recapitalizing our Polar icebreaking fleet; continued investment now is vital to solidify our standing as an Arctic nation and affirms the Coast Guard’s role in providing assured, year-round access to the Polar regions for decades to come.

This seems to be a part of an effort to broaden the appeal of the icebreaker program as discussed in a recent USNI post, “Coast Guard Renames Icebreaker Program ‘Polar Security Cutter.'”. Their “…hull designation will be WMSP. W is the standard prefix for Coast Guard vessels, and MSP stands for Maritime Security-Polar, Brian Olexy, a Coast Guard spokesman, told USNI News.”

Apparently we are working toward a fleet of 64 Webber class WPCs rather than the 58 in the Program of Record. The first two additional to replace six Island class WPBs currently assigned to Patrol Force South West Asia have already been funded.

“…Earlier this summer, we exercised the second option under the Phase II contract to begin production of six more FRCs. The FY 2018 appropriation also included funding for two additional FRCs, beyond our domestic program of record of 58 hulls (emphasis applied–Chuck), to initiate the vital replacement of our six patrol boats supporting long-term U.S. Central Command missions in southwest Asia.”

Q&A. Topics discussed during the question and answer period included:

Civil Engineering/Shore infrastructure. $1.6B backlog.

40:00 possibility of a 12th NSC

42:30 Where is the $34M taken out of the FY2018 budget will be coming from–reprogramming within the Department.

44:30 Closures of the Potomac

54:00 Diversity within the service.

1:14:40 Need for larger Reserve Force

1:18:00 Icebreaker program

1:20:00 Waterways commerce cutters

In addition response to the recent Hurricanes seemed to be very much on the minds of Representatives and was referred to repeatedly.

Update on Coast Guard Acquisition Programs and Mission Balance and Effectiveness–Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure

This is not going to flow well, I apologized for the mishmash. The video above is of a House Sub-Committee hearing that occurred on July 24. I think it is still worth a look. The video does not actually begin until just before time 19:55

Before watching the video, I would suggest a look at the “Summary of Subject Matter.” This is what the Congressional Representatives are looking at.

End of Service Lives for Medium Endurance Cutters (MEC) with Planned Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) Delivery Dates:

Check out the charts on page 2. The second chart shows “End of Service Lives for Medium Endurance Cutters (MEC) with Planned Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) Delivery Dates.” It illustrates the risks and loss of capacity that appears likely, if OPCs are funded at the planned rate of no more than two ships a year. It is unclear why the WMECs are to be retired in the order intended since it is not the order of their completion. Presumably it is based on an assessment of the condition of the ships, but it is very clear that they will all be well over aged. The 210s will retire first. The youngest retirement would be at age 53 and some would qualify for Social Security before replacement.  (Diligence, 66)

How they arrived at the expected service life shown is hard to understand, because every 210 is going to be 53 years old or older at the end of projected service life plus 15 year life extension. The 210s were, of course, substantially reworked during a “Major Maintenance Availability” 1986 to 1990, but no further life extension work is apparently planned based on the testimony in the video.

It may appear we are in much better shape with respect to the 270s, but these more complex ships may actually be harder to keep operational. We saw this in the number of breakdown experienced after the Haitian Earthquake eight years ago. They were commissioned between 1983 and 1991 and are expected to be replaced between 2130 and 2135. Legare, second to newest, is planned to be the first replaced, and would be “only” 40 years old. Harriet Lane one of the earliest completed is expected to be one of the last replaced and would be 50 years old. The rest fall within that range. SLEP for 270s beginning 2021, but it is not certain it will be applied to all 13 ships. 

Because ships are not being replaced as quickly as they were originally built, we see a growing gap between the end of the ship’s projected service life, even with a 15 year service life extension, and the projected date of replacement.

Cutter Capability (by operating hour):

See also Appendix A, which illustrates the current shortfall in cutter hours available compared to the “Legacy Fleet” the recapitalization program was intended to replace. The “Legacy Fleet” is based on 12 WHECs, 29 WMECs, and 49 island class WPBs. (Not sure why they used 29 WMECs, since we had 32 as recently as 2001.)

There are two charts, the first includes WPBs and Webber class WPCs as well as WHECs, WMECs, NSCs, and OPCs. The second considers on the only the larger vessels, excluding WPCs and WPBs. 

The first chart shows that we are currently down 20,450 hours (8.6%) relative to the legacy fleet, but that when the recapitalization is complete the total will be 31,970 hours (13.4%) greater than the legacy fleet. This increase is all due to the greater number Webber class and the greater number of hours each is expected to operate annually compared to 110s.

The second chart looks only at the larger ships, leaving aside the Webber and Island class WPCs and WPBs. It shows we are currently down 13,950 op hours (10%) and further, that when the program is completed, we will be down 15,030 hours (10.7%)reflecting the smaller number of large patrol cutters. If we could view this as a chart of actual cutter available on a yearly basis, it suggest that we will never be down by more than the 10.7% that shows upon completion of the program. Actually that is unlikely to be the case. The aging fleet means a higher probability of unplanned maintenance and even catastrophic failure that may result in WMECs being decommissioned prematurely and becoming parts donors like the Polar Sea.

The saving grace may be that the Webber class have proven capable of performing some WMEC like duties and they are coming on line very rapidly. In all probability, the 58 cutters in the FRC program of record will all be delivered by the end of 2024.

At some point Coast Guard leadership is going to have to tell Congress the ugly truth that we have started the OPC/WMEC replacement program much too late, and we need to double down on the production rate. As soon as the first ship is completed and tested we need to issue a Multi-Year Procurement contract and it should include building up to four ships a year, at least until all sixteen 210s are replaced and at least three ships a year until all the WMECs are replaced.

We need to tell the Congress this as soon as possible, because bad news does not get better with age. Unfortunately it did not happen in this hearing. In fact when asked about the possibility of accelerating OPC production, time 1:10:00, VAdm McAllister seemed to dismiss the possibility saying we had other higher priorities. This was the wrong answer. You don’t always get to decide how money is spent. If we should get the opportunity to accelerate OPC construction, as has happened with the FRCs, we should welcome it.

Mission Needs Statement:

You can see the “Mission Needs Statement” referred to here. It is 70 pages plus about 45 pages of Appendices, but as noted, “…  it does not identify asset gaps or a material solution to meet Coast Guard’s mission needs.”

GAO findings, failure to plan long term:

The GAO has taken the Coast Guard to task because their acquisition portfolio planning has been limited to apparently short term planning using the annual budget and five year Capital Investment Plan (CIP). That this has resulted a bow wave of unfunded requirements being pushed progressively further into the future.

“When you are up to your ass in alligators, it is difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.”

I have to think GAO has a point here.

We still have not provided a 20 year acquisition plan that the Coast Guard said they would provide in 2014, much less the 30 year plan I have suggested that would parallel the Navy’s planning process.

We have only done one fleet mix study. It was completed in 2007 and included the apparent assumption of applying the now rejected Crew Rotation Concept to both the NSCs and OPCs. Even so, it is still being used as a basis for critiquing the program of record that was last re-baselined in 2005. Things change, we now have better information about how our assets actually function. It is long past time for updated planning.

The Video: 

Witnesses were:

  • Vice Admiral Daniel Abel, Deputy Commandant for Operations, United States Coast Guard | Written Testimony
  • Vice Admiral Michael McAllister, Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, United States Coast Guard | Written Testimony
  • Ms. Marie A. Mak, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management, Government Accountability Office | Written Testimony

Here is a brief outline of the topic discussed. Video actually begins 19:55.

23:00 Administration and CG leadership priorities do not demonstrate a commitment to rebuild infrastructure.

42:00 Appropriation deleted $1.4B including $750M for the Heavy Polar Icebreaker and the rest from an account to repair of replace hurricane damaged infrastructure.

46:00 Icebreaker schedule is overly optimistic.

47:00 WMEC gap.

49:00 No service life extension program for 210s. Some, but not all 270s, will have 10 year life extension.

51:00 Capabilities vs hours.

55:30 WMECs are operating at higher than anticipated tempo. Anticipate catastrophic failures within in the WMEC fleet. 5 out or 14 WMEC 210s are at high risk.

59:30 Maintenance backlog.

1:08:00 Still no 20 year plan has been provided since it was requested in 2014.

1:10:00 accelerate OPC procurement?

1:12:30 OPC homeports, of the first four, two will go to Kodiak and two to LA

1:14:00 Great Lakes icebreaking,  Mackinaw replacement? SLEP of 140′

1:15:45 Will be doing a fleet mix study for the Great Lakes.

1:17:00 Inland fleet. Doing alternatives analysis.

1:20:00 Homeport for icebreakers has not been decided. Working on homeport decisions for the entire fleet.

1:23:00 UAS

1:24:00 Counter UAS capability. The six WPBs in CENTCOM have some capability.

1:25:00 Manpower analysis


Opening Statement of the Sub-Committee Chair:

The Subcommittee is meeting today to review how the Coast Guard is integrating their acquisition, manpower, and maintenance plans to align to their mission needs and assure the Service has the assets, personnel, and expertise needed to carry out its missions.

On June 1, 2018, Admiral Karl Schultz became the 26th Commandant of the Coast Guard.  His guiding principles for the Service are: Ready, Relevant, and Responsive.  He said, “These guiding principles frame my direction and will support the Department of Homeland Security, the Secretary of Defense and Combatant Commanders, and other national and global maritime interests.”  Admiral Schultz and his senior leadership team are in the midst of reviewing the status of the Coast Guard and making changes to align the Service with those guiding principles.  Today, we will hear from two members of that team, and look forward to better understanding their perspectives on the status of the Coast Guard.

The ongoing recapitalization of the Service’s cutters was planned two decades ago to address mission demands at that time.  The world and the demands on the Coast Guard have since changed and it is critical that the Service be ready to respond to the demands of today, as well as those that will exist in decades to come. It is also important that the Coast Guard is prepared to manage capability gaps that are occurring and likely to continue to occur as recapitalization continues.

The decisions being made today will shape the Coast Guard of the future.  The cutters being built today have a planned 30-year service life and will probably serve longer, and the final OPC is projected to be patrolling the seas until 2064. Like Admiral Schultz, Congress wants to ensure the Coast Guard is Ready, Relevant, and Responsive for years to come.  In order to do so, we need accurate information from the Service to determine whether current plans will provide the capabilities to meet future demands.

Even more important than Coast Guard ships and aircraft are the people who operate them.  The Coast Guard’s active duty workforce is only slightly larger than that of the New York City police department and less than ¼ the size of the next smallest U.S. Armed Force.  Congress has encouraged the Coast Guard to better understand and articulate its workforce needs to meet current and emerging needs. Looking forward, it is likely that the Service will need to make tough, strategic decisions regarding how Coast Guard personnel are allocated.  Even before the advent of a new cybersecurity operating domain, the Coast Guard was struggling to meet mission demands; creating a cybersecurity workforce while also conducting legacy operations poses an additional challenge that must be addressed immediately.

In addition to our focus on Coast Guard assets and personnel, this Subcommittee has continually pushed the Service to improve its shore infrastructure made up of approximately 43,400 assets nationwide.  Unfortunately, even after several years of us stressing the need for action, much of that property is in dire need of rebuilding or repair.  While Coast Guard leaders consistently stress the importance of investing in shore infrastructure, the budgetary trade-offs being made within the Coast Guard and the Administration do not reflect a genuine commitment to address this need.  For example, despite a shore infrastructure backlog of more than $1.5 billion, the Coast Guard’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget request only includes $30 million to address those projects.

Shore infrastructure is critical to every Coast Guard mission – cutters need piers, aircraft need runways, inspectors need buildings, etc. – and if the Service truly desires to remain Ready, Relevant, and Responsive, it needs to find ways to address these critical needs.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a number of reports since 2012 reviewing Coast Guard acquisition programs and providing recommendations to improve those programs.  Over the years, the Coast Guard has agreed with many of those recommendations and agreed to take action on them.  However, the new GAO report released today notes that the Coast Guard has not fully implemented those prior recommendations.  Hopefully, today’s hearing will help us understand why that is.

A new senior leadership team brings new perspectives, new ideas, and new priorities.  I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today on how they see the Coast Guard and how we can best position the Service for success going forward.

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.

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.