A solicitation for the first new Coast Guard heavy polar icebreaker in over 30 years will be released on Friday, initiating a competition among up to five vendors for the potential multi-billion dollar program that currently could see three of the ships built, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said on Thursday.
The Request for Proposals (RFP) for the ship had been expected by Wednesday but Zukunft said the “unwieldly” document is 1,750 pages and includes the full range of specifications and requirements, so exact timing can be difficult to pin down.
Once the first ship is built, Zukunft told reporters following his annual State of the Coast Guard address, the Coast Guard will consider doing a block buy for the rest of the vessels. He said the cost of the first ship is expected to be well under $1 billion.
He called the icebreaker program “our highest priority right now,” pointing out that the Coast Guard has no self-rescue capability for its current heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is departing Antarctica after completing an annual mission there. The Polar Star was commissioned in the mid-1970s and is nearing the end of its service life.
The RFP will be released by the Navy as the Naval Sea Systems Command will be the contracting authority for the icebreaker. The Coast Guard and Navy have an integrated program office for the icebreaker. The lead ship is slated for delivery in 2023.
The current mission need statement of the Coast Guard is for three heavy icebreakers and three medium icebreakers. The service also operates a medium icebreaker, the Healy, which was commissioned in 1999.
The vendors expected to vie for the heavy icebreaker award are all currently performing design study contracts that aided in establishing specifications and requirements. The contractors are Bollinger Shipyards, the U.S.-based shipbuilding division of Italy’s Fincantieri, General Dynamics [GD], Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII], and VT Halter Marine, which is the U.S.-based shipbuilding division of Singapore’s ST Engineering.
Bollinger and HII are already key suppliers to the Coast Guard: Bollinger with Fast Response Cutters and HII with National Security Cutters.
Once the ice studies are done, Zukunft said the vendors will look at commercially-available designs to “accelerate the build out rather than have to design new, a heavy icebreaker.”
Zukunft said it’s too early to say what the final construction and life-cycle costs will be for a fleet of three heavy icebreakers, noting that for the competition, it comes down to “does it meet requirements and is it affordable … and at the same time can it meet schedule. If it does all of those, I am very confident, extremely confident, we’re looking at well below a $1 billion acquisition,” for the first ship.
During his address, Zukunft said the RFP will have “the funding to match” purchase of the first icebreaker.
The Coast Guard is requesting $750 million in FY ’19 for the first icebreaker, which includes $720 million for construction. The rest of the funding is for program management and related activities. The five contractors that have been working on icebreakers studies were each awarded about $5 million each over the past year for their efforts.
Zukunft also said he wants “modularity” designed into the icebreaker to more easily add capabilities later. One capability that Zukunft said will be designed in for future needs is weaponization, a feature he mentioned earlier this year.
“As we look at, what is Russia’s intent in the Arctic and are they going to oppose U.S. presence in the Arctic, can we use another tool besides submarines and use surface assets,” he said. Russia has about 40 polar icebreaking vessels and is developing two armed corvettes for Arctic operations.
Zukunft said that as weapons “systems evolve,” the Coast Guard and Navy will “see what’s available on the shelf” for potential use on its icebreakers. Modularity also applies to C4ISR systems, he said.
The future icebreakers will also feature autonomous technology, both unmanned aircraft systems and unmanned underwater systems, Zukunft said.
“We really need to think creatively, what is the future of autonomous vehicles,” Zukunft told reporters. “They might be autonomous ships in the life-cycle of this ship as well but we really need to be thinking about autonomous vehicles, in the air and underwater as well. And that’s just the very beginning part.”
The Coast Guard has experimented with unmanned aircraft and underwater systems in the Arctic. The service also this year released a RFP for contractors to provide small unmanned aircraft services aboard its fleet of National Security Cutters.
In the near-term, the Coast Guard needs better satellite coverage in the Arctic with more bandwidth, he said. Above 78-degrees latitude, most satellites the service uses are “on the horizon” and even further north communications become “very difficult.” He said the “first piece of technology is increasing bandwidth with satellite coverage in high-latitudes.”