The Coast Guard and its partners are assessing options for additional polar icebreaking capacity in the next decade beyond current plans pursuant to a directive from the Trump administration, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said on Thursday.

The Coast Guard’s current polar strategy calls for six new icebreakers, at least three of them heavy, and one immediately, and now “The good news is there’s been a conversation beyond the 6-3-1 strategy,” Schultz said during a virtual address hosted by the Navy League. “The president and his team have pressed us here since this past summer pulling together the energy of five cabinet level officials and OMB about saying, ‘Hey, what does more capacity for high-latitude work between now and 2029 look like?’”

OMB refers to the White House Office of Management and Budget, the overseers of executive branch budgets.

Schultz said the Coast Guard is working with the Navy on the White House tasking. The two services are partners in the integrated project office that manages the Coast Guard’s heavy polar icebreaker program, the Polar Security Cutter (PSC).

Steel is expected to be cut on the first PSC in the coming months by shipbuilder VT Halter Marine, which in April 2019 won a $745 million contract to build the first new icebreaker. Delivery of the first ship is expected in the first half of 2024 and the contract has incentives for moving delivery forward into late 2023.

Schultz said that the hope is to have the PSC in “the water and put into operations in late” 2024 into 2025.

House and Senate appropriators have recommended funding the administration’s $555 million request for production of a second PSC in the fiscal year 2021 budget. The request is contained in the Department of Homeland Security’s budget, which hasn’t been approved yet.

In June, President Trump issued a memorandum directing a review of requirements for a fleet of PSCs to ensure a “persistent United States presence in the Arctic and Antarctic regions in support of” national security requirements (Defense Daily, June 9). The memo was sent to the Departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, and State, OMB and the president’s National Security Advisor.

Trump also directed the Departments of State and Homeland Security to look at potential leasing options for polar icebreakers that could be provided by “partner nations” to fill potential national security gaps between 2022 and 2029.

The Coast Guard hasn’t looked favorably in the past on leasing options for ice breakers, at least not as a permanent solution to its polar requirements. But Schultz said leasing could fill near-term gaps.

“We clearly don’t want to be looking at leasing options as a replacement for the procurement of ships that are going to serve us for decades to come, but there might be some bridging strategies and some leasing options,” he said. “So, we’re working really hard on that, answering some deliverables over to the White House and hope we can keep some momentum.”

A Coast Guard spokesman told Defense Daily following Schultz’s speech that the service and the Navy “have formed a joint working group to assess available foreign and domestic vessels that would meet short-term mission needs in the Arctic. The Coast Guard is continuing to evaluate all options and provide detailed analysis of icebreaker capacity, lease options, and long-term strategies to protect vital economic and national security interests in the Polar Regions.”

Schultz’s reference to “momentum” is a nod to the fact that the Trump administration’s days are numbered and the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office on January 20, 2021, may have different priorities.

However, Schultz highlighted that “polar operations” have enjoyed bipartisan and bicameral support.

“I think there’s some goodness coming out of this one here and we’re going to press forward,” Schultz said.

While the contract for the new PSC was awarded during the Trump administration, it was the preceding Obama administration that accelerated the nation’s efforts to begin replacing its legacy polar icebreakers.

The U.S. currently has one heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Star, which shortly is headed to the Arctic region for its first mission there in about 25 years. The 44-year-old ship, which will undergo piecemeal fixes to extend its service life over the next few years, typically is used to break ice in Antarctica in support of a U.S. National Science Foundation mission there.

This year’s mission to Antarctica, which normally would have got underway around mid-November, was scrubbed because COVID-19 has limited some of the science activity and plans for aerial resupplies are in the works.

The Coast Guard’s lone medium polar icebreaker, the Healy, was on its way to the Arctic in August but its annual scientific mission there was aborted due to an onboard fire. The 21-year old vessel is heading into drydock for repairs.

A second PSC is expected to be delivered in the mid-2020s followed a year or two later by a third.