As the Coast Guard prepares to review industry bids for a new heavy polar icebreaker, the service is keeping its options open for the right number and mix of polar icebreakers it will need in the future, Adm. Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the Coast Guard, said on Wednesday.
The Coast Guard’s program of record is for three heavy and three medium polar icebreakers but Zukunft said the “jury is still out” whether that will remain so. Right now, the service is aiming toward building three new heavy icebreakers, but it might make sense just to keep building these ships, he told reporters at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C.
Zukunft said that “when you start looking at the business case after you build three, and then you need to look at what is the economy of scale when you start building heavy icebreakers, and would it be less expensive to continue to build heavies and not mediums.” He added that the heavy icebreakers provide more capability, and if the price is “affordable” and in “the same range” as building medium icebreakers, then “maybe you end up with one class of heavy icebreakers.”
Building only one class of ships has a number of advantages in terms of maintenance, crew familiarity, configuration management, and more, he said. A decision on what the future icebreaker fleet will consist of is “still probably several years out …. but that’s one option that we want to keep open going forward,” Zukunft said.
Last July, the National Academies of Science recommended that the Coast Guard build four heavy icebreakers based on a common design as the lowest cost strategy for a polar icebreaker fleet instead of pursuing three heavy and three medium vessels (Defense Daily, July 11, 2017).
Five companies have been performing design and requirements studies for the Coast Guard’s heavy icebreaker program. Bids on the detail design and construction contract are due to the Navy, which is managing the contracting for the program, by May 11. The companies performing the studies are Bollinger Shipyards, General Dynamics [GD], a U.S. division of Italy’s Fincantieri, Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII], and VT Halter Marine, which is the U.S.-based shipbuilding division of Singapore’s ST Engineering.
The Trump administration is proposing $750 million for the heavy icebreaker in the fiscal year 2019 budget request for the Coast Guard, which Zukunft said will complete construction of the first ship. In addition, Congress has previously appropriated $300 million in the Navy’s shipbuilding account for a heavy icebreaker that would be operated by the Coast Guard. There is no funding in the Defense Department's FY '19 budget request for an icebreaker.
Zukunft said the Defense Department funding that has already been appropriated for an icebreaker would go toward purchasing a second vessel.
The Request for Proposals issued by the Navy in early March for the heavy polar icebreaker asks vendors to consider block buy options for future purchases of the vessels. The Coast Guard hasn’t said how purchases beyond the first ship will be phased and Zukunft indicated this will depend in part on the vendors’ replies to the question of block buys.
A block buy gives shipbuilders “great confidence in terms of stability for their workforce and meeting production lines,” Zukunft said. It also avoids getting tied up by annual budgeting and the “fits and starts” associated with continuing resolutions used by Congress to fund the federal government until a budget deal is reached well into a fiscal year, he said.
Zukunft reiterated that the heavy polar icebreaker program is the Coast Guard’s top acquisition priority because the service currently lacks a self-rescue capability for its lone existing heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is nearing the end of its service life. The Coast Guard operates one medium polar icebreaker, the Healy, which is more than 15 years old, and still has enough service life in front of it, allowing the service to focus for now on recapitalizing its heavy fleet and decide what mix of icebreakers it needs in the future.
Zukunft has previously said the new icebreaker design will leave open the option for weaponizing the vessel at a later time. He said on Wednesday that unmanned aircraft systems and unmanned underwater vehicles will likely also be featured on the new icebreakers. The UUVs would help with surveying the Arctic region to bring surveys up to 21st century standards.
On other matters, Zukunft said the Coast Guard is expected this year to choose a vendor to provide small unmanned aircraft (UAS) services for the Coast Guard’s fleet of 418-foot National Security Cutters (NSC). Boeing’s [BA] Insitu unit and Textron Inc.[TXT] are both vying to provide the small UAS services.
The Coast Guard has done evaluations of the Insitu ScanEagle small UAS aboard one of its NSCs to understand its requirements and operations. Industry officials believe a source selection is imminent.
In addition to having a UAS capability aboard its NSCs, Zukunft mentioned the need for having counter UAS capabilities, noting that Trans Criminal Organizations involved in drug smuggling can be expected to have their own UAS systems to be aware of where the Coast Guard is operating.
Zukunft also touched on needs for additional surveillance assets in the drug transit zones in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea where smugglers move cocaine in bulk from Colombia to countries in Central America, where the drugs are then repackaged into smaller shipments for transit into the U.S., typically in trucking containers that arrive at ports of entry.
The drug smuggling from South America hasn’t reached a plateau, he said.
The Coast Guard plans to do a technology demonstration of a long-range, ultra-endurance UAS that could monitor the transit zones for nearly a day at a time. Zukunft said that the demonstration is aimed at enhancing the Coast Guard’s requirements and options for unmanned surveillance assets.
The commandant, who retires next month, also said that he would like to provide additional Coast Guard manpower to take advantage of underutilized long-range UAS assets being used by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for border security and maritime missions.
CBP owns and operates nine General Atomics MQ-9 Predator UAS out of bases in the southern U.S. but Zukunft said these aircraft are only flying about 25 percent of the hours they are capable of. He told Defense Daily after the breakfast that the Coast Guard still needs to work within the department to sort out how to make better use of CBP’s drones.
The Coast Guard wants to be able to operate long-range UAS in partner countries such as El Salvador, which are closer to the transit zones.