NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Following Bollinger Shipyards’ acquisition of Halter Marine last November, the shipbuilder is expected to begin working on production-related prototype efforts soon that will help inform the ongoing detailed design of the first new U.S. heavy polar icebreaker in decades and hopefully put the company in a position to give a timeline late this summer or early fall on when construction of the ship will begin, a senior Coast Guard official said this week.

The prototype modules will include things like welding techniques and how the hull can be bent, all of which will be used as a “benchmark” against the detailed design, Vice Adm. Steven Poulin, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, said this week at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition here.

Halter Marine, which was a division of Singapore’s

ST Engineering, in April 2019 won a potential $2 billion contract to build up to three polar security cutters (PSC) with delivery of the first ship planned for the first half of 2024. The award included incentives for delivery of the initial PSC in late 2023.

But the COVID-19 pandemic and related supply chain, labor and travel issues caused delays in the program. Poulin also highlighted the fact that the last heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Star, was built in the early 1970s.

The PSC is a “complex ship” and has 85 compartments that have to be welded together, Poulin said. In comparison, the Coast Guard’s new medium-endurance offshore patrol cutter will have about 17 compartments, he said.

Poulin also said the differences between the thickness of the steel on a heavy icebreaker versus a large Coast Guard cutter that is more like a Naval surface combatant is “profound,” and requires learning how to bend the steel and weld it.

“The frames on a heavy icebreaker are much closer together,” he said. “You can’t necessarily weld it with your arm. So, you have to develop these new techniques, whether it’s robotic welding or other mechanisms. You really have to retool as a shipyard to figure out how to build a polar security cutter.”

The Coast Guard had hoped the “detailed design would be further along than it is right now,” Poulin said, but noted that Bollinger is “excited” the “really significant” challenge of building the PSC, and “they’re excited about it in a positive way.”

The Coast Guard’s current schedule has the first PSC being delivered in fiscal year 2026, but the service has said that timeline is at risk and could slip into 2027. But until Bollinger is able to get up to speed on the design and the production needs, the Coast Guard doesn’t know when construction will start.

Bollinger is under contract for the first two PSCs. The Coast Guard is seeking long-lead material funding for the third PSC in its FY ’24 budget request.

Bollinger also builds the Coast Guard’s fast response cutters, which typically operate in the littorals.

In addition to the Polar Star, the Coast Guard also operates a medium polar icebreaker, the Healy. Eventually, the service wants to build a new class of medium icebreakers it calling the Arctic security cutter.