The Coast Guard is seeking $125 million in its fiscal year 2023 budget request for a “commercially available polar icebreaker,” which would help the service meet interim needs until its new fleet of heavy polar security cutters (PSCs) is operational.
The request for a domestic commercial icebreaker is a bit of a surprise, although the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security have previously said that they were looking at commercial alternatives, including leasing arrangements, to help get more polar icebreaking capabilities sooner rather than later.
Last October, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz told a Senate panel that the Coast Guard and White House had been discussing commercial options to help the service fill its near-term icebreaking needs and that the conversation had moved from a potential lease to an actual purchase because the ship would then remain part of the Coast Guard’s inventory.
The Coast Guard included $150 million for a commercial icebreaker in its unfunded priorities list for FY ’22 but Congress didn’t provide the funds.
Coast Guard documents included in the Biden administration’s FY ’23 budget request on Monday indicate that the purchase of a commercially available polar icebreaker would meet long-term needs.
“The purchase and modification of a commercially available domestic polar icebreaker represents an effective interim strategy to increase near-term presence in the Arctic until the Polar Security Cutter fleet is operational and to add regional capacity in the long-term,” says the Coast Guard’s budget request. It also says that the “vessel will provide a platform capable of projecting U.S. sovereignty and influence while conducting Coast Guard statutory missions in the high latitudes.”
A Coast Guard spokesman highlighted for Defense Daily that a commercial icebreaker will not replace the program of record for the PSC, which is three ships.
“PSCs provide the Nation with a heavy polar icebreaking capability; no commercially-available icebreaker possesses the capabilities the Nation needs to satisfy the missions conducted by the CGC POLAR STAR and future PSCs,” the spokesman wrote in an email response to questions. He added that the commercial icebreaker would be a “force multiplier and a natural complement to the capabilities of the PSC fleet.”
The Polar Star is the Coast Guard’s sole heavy polar icebreaker.
The FY ’23 budget request for the commercial icebreaker is likely just a down payment for the ship, which would be completed in the fourth quarter of FY ’27, according to the budget documents. The construction contract for the second PSC, awarded to shipbuilder Halter Marine in late 2021, was for $552.7 million.
Halter Marine has been awarded construction contracts for the first two PSCs with the first ship expected to be delivered in the third quarter of FY ’25, more than a year behind the original schedule due in part to complications from COVID-19. The second ship is expected to be delivered in September 2026, which is late in the fourth quarter of FY ’26.
Halter Marine still hasn’t begun construction on the first ship.
The budget documents say that key FY ’23 activities for the commercial icebreaker include the start of pre-acquisition activities, begin design work to sort out ship modification requirements for the Coast Guard, create an integrated logistics support plan, and develop and release a request for proposals.
Congress has appropriated a portion, $30 million, of the long-lead time material funds for the third PSC and the Biden administration in its FY ’23 budget request released on March 28 is asking for $170 million for the program, part of which will go toward long-lead materials.
In addition to at least three PSCs, which are heavy polar icebreakers, the Coast Guard’s plan also calls for three medium polar icebreakers and Schultz has said a case could be made for nine polar icebreakers.
In addition to the Polar Star, the Coast Guard currently operates the Healy, a medium polar icebreaking ship. The Polar Star is undergoing a series of service life extensions to keep it operational until at least the second PSC is delivered.
Demand for the new heavy icebreakers is being driven by melting ice in the Arctic and strategic competition as natural resources become more accessible and new sea-routes emerge for commerce. Coast Guard conducts polar icebreaking missions in the Arctic and Antarctic.