Delivery of the first new Coast Guard heavy polar icebreaker has slipped a year to 2025 due to the fact that it’s been 45 years since the last heavy icebreaker was built in the U.S. and impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, Adm. Karl Schultz, the service’s commandant, said on Tuesday.
The first Polar Security Cutter (PSC) is expected to be delivered in the third quarter of fiscal year 2025, Schultz told a Senate Commerce Committee panel that oversees the Coast Guard. The PSC was originally expected to be delivered in March of 2024, which is in the second quarter of FY ’24. That timeline was later revised to May 2024, which is the third quarter.
The Coast Guard at one time had held out hope for a potentially earlier delivery, by late 2023, with incentives provided to shipbuilder VT Halter Marine, which in April 2019 won a potential $1.9 billion contract for the detailed design and construction for up to three PSCs. Before the award, the Coast Guard had been saying it hoped to accept delivery of the first new heavy polar icebreaker in late 2023.
Schultz said that COVID “complications” have hampered “international collaboration” on PSC ship construction, noting that the program is ambitious and “on a compressed timeline.”
A Coast Guard spokesman told Defense Daily in an email reply to questions that infection rates and travel restrictions due to COVID “significantly affected Halter Marine’s ship design efforts and subcontractor integration, resulting in unavoidable delays. COVID-19 was particularly impactful to HMI’s efforts to hire and maintain staffing levels across multiple occupation categories (labor, management, and engineering) and hindered collaboration with its ship design subcontractors, many of whom are based internationally and were significantly affected by early COVID-19 restrictions.”
The spokesman added that “The Coast Guard and Navy Integrated Program Office recently negotiated a consolidated contract action that definitizes COVID-19 delays and rebaselines the delivery schedule by 12 months.” Still, the the program remains on track to begin operations in 2027 with Operation Deep Freeze, he said.
The Coast Guard currently operates two polar icebreakers: the heavy icebreaker Polar Star, which is 45 years old, and the Healy, a medium-ice breaker, which is 22 years old. The Healy in 2020 suffered a fire in its propulsion system as it was sailing toward the Arctic for its annual mission there, forcing the ship to scrap its mission and head back to port for repairs.
The Polar Star is going through a piecemeal service life extension program to keep it operational until at least the second PSC is delivered.
To help fill its near-term icebreaking needs, the Coast Guard and the White House have explored the potential lease of medium polar icebreakers. Schultz, asked by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), the ranking member on the panel, about the status of the lease talks, replied that they continue, “but I think we have pivoted the conversation from potentially a lease to maybe a purchase scenario and we remain engaged with the [Biden] administration, the national security staff on that.”
Shultz said his current budget doesn’t have the capacity to acquire or lease an icebreaker on an interim basis. At one time, he said, there was “talk” that the administration might do this but it appears to be on “little less firm ground right now.” The Coast Guard’s unfunded priorities list included $150 million for Congress to consider adding for the interim icebreaker, he said.
Neither House nor Senate appropriators have put funding in their FY ’22 spending bills for the Department of Homeland Security toward an interim icebreaker. Senate appropriators on Monday introduced a bill that cuts $170 million in long-lead time materials for the third PSC due to the program delays.
Schultz said procurement of an interim vessel and keeping it in the Coast Guard’s inventory is preferable to a lease. That ship would still need sustainment funding, he said.
The Coast Guard’s current plans for new polar icebreakers include at least three heavy and three medium ships. Schultz said a case could be made for nine polar icebreakers.
The Coast Guard operates its polar icebreakers in the Arctic and Antarctic. The biggest concern in the Arctic is the Coast Guard and Navy having steady presence to counter potential aggressive behavior by Russia, which has about 50 icebreakers, in the region.