The Coast Guard early this year said it would plan for a limited service life extension of its one heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Star, to prevent a gap in icebreaker operations but the service hasn’t performed the necessary analysis to support its decision, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says in a new report.

The “rough estimate” for the limited life extension is $75 million and is founded on a cost of a previous SLEP completed in fiscal year 2013 but this analysis may fall short of actual needs, in part due to limitations in cannibalizing parts from the Polar Sea, another Coast Guard heavy polar icebreaker that isn’t operational, the report says.

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star. The cutter was built by the former Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company and was commissioned in 1977. Photo: Coast Guard
The Coast Guard is assessing cost estimates for a limited service life extension to its only heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Star. Photo: Coast Guard

“As a result of the finite parts available from the Polar Sea, the Coast Guard may have to acquire new parts for the Polar Star that could increase the $75 million estimate,” says the report, Coast Guard: Status of Polar Icebreaking Fleet Capability and Recapitalization Plan (GAO-17-698R). It says the service is assessing the work needed for the limited life extension, which in turn will support a better cost estimate.

But, GAO cautions that the Coast Guard needs to use federal best practices in analyzing what is needed for the actual life extension of the Polar Star, adding that in its reporting it found that the Coast Guard hasn’t “been fully collaborating with relevant federal stakeholders to ensure that they have assessed all potential options for bridging the potential gap” in heavy icebreaker operations.

The Coast Guard’s current schedule is to award a design and build contract for the first new heavy icebreaker in fiscal year 2019 with delivery of the lead vessel in fiscal year 2023. However, the Polar Star is expected to reach the end of its current service life in FY ’20, leaving a potential three year gap in heavy icebreaker operations.

The current acquisition schedule was updated several years ago is more aggressive than original plans by a few years. But, GAO says, the schedule could be at risk depending on the Coast Guard’s ability to complete acquisition planning documents before the end of FY ’17, which is this week. Failure to complete the required documents could push back the release of the RFP, the report says.

The limited life extension planned for the Polar Star would allow the vessel to continue operating until FY ’25.

GAO also says that from FY ’10 through FY ’16, the Coast Guard was only able to fulfill 78 percent of government agency requests for polar icebreaking needs. This was largely due to the Polar Star being inactive for two years to complete its most recent life extension.

The Coast Guard also operates one other polar icebreaker, the Healy, which is a medium icebreaker. The service has a requirement for three new heavy polar icebreakers and three new medium polar icebreakers.