The Coast Guard on Wednesday released its requirements document for a new heavy icebreaker that would operate in the polar regions, a significant step toward building at least one new vessel and possibly more, although funding for the ship is still being worked.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said the release of the requirements for the polar icebreaker, combined with the fact that he has already hired an acquisition staff, demonstrates his confidence that funding for the vessel will be there, although he added that he’s still “working” this.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot polar icebreaker. Photo: Coast Guard
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot polar icebreaker. Photo: Coast Guard

Zukunft told attendees at the annual Surface Navy Association symposium that funding levels for the new icebreaker won’t be known until release of the Obama administration’s FY ’17 budget request in early February. Previous estimates have put the cost of a new heavy icebreaker at about $1 billion.

The Coast Guard has said previously that it did not want to shoulder the cost of a new heavy icebreaker alone given that the ship would be used for missions across the domains of other U.S. departments and agencies. But Zukunft told Defense Daily after his speech that the Coast Guard would fund the new ship and that the monies for it would somehow be held separate from its current acquisition budget.

Creating a separate space in the budget for the icebreaker would likely prevent other portions of the Coast Guard’s acquisition budget from being cannibalized to make up for cost overruns in the polar ship program as it moves along.

The Coast Guard currently operates one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which was commissioned in 1976, and one medium icebreaker, the Healy. The Polar Star had been deactivated but after a three-year reactivation returned to operations in late 2013. The ship is expected to remain in service through around 2020 to 2023.

President Obama in September, during a visit to Alaska, said his administration would be proposing to accelerate production of a new heavy icebreaker by two years to 2020 as human activity in the Arctic region picks up in the wake of a melting ice cap.

Zukunft noted that Russia currently has 41 sea going icebreakers and 14 more under construction. 

Robert Papp, the State Department’s Special Representative to the Arctic, said at the symposium that beginning a polar icebreaker program demonstrates to the world the commitment of the U.S. to the Arctic, adding that other countries are “very excited” about U.S. leadership here. He said the ultimate number of icebreakers the U.S. builds is “irrelevant” but said that Obama has committed to multiple icebreakers.

Papp, who preceded Zukunft as Coast Guard Commandant, said that former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told him that based on Coast Guard requirements, there would need to be eight icebreakers to maintain a full-time presence of at least one vessel each in the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans.

“The Coast Guard’s not asking for eight icebreakers although we could probably make use of them but we certainly need more than one and we need more than two and in order to fulfill our responsibilities in the Arctic and Antarctic we’re going to need more than that,” Papp said.

Papp also said that having icebreakers is important because “once again going back to maritime governance, you have to as a country have assured access to your maritime environments,” Papp said. He added that while Arctic sea ice is melting, it’s going to be there for at least another 50 years so the U.S. needs icebreakers to carry out its “sovereign responsibilities” by getting in and out of the area.

The requirements document was released on the but was locked. Zukunft told the audience that without any shore infrastructure in the Arctic, the icebreaker is a “floating command platform,” and that it will also provide oil spill response capabilities where little currently exists. He also said the new ship needs to be able to operate unmanned systems, whether in the air or on the sea floor.

The requirements document includes an acquisition timeline too, Zukunft said. In March—the exact date to be determined—the Coast Guard will host an Industry Day to discuss its plans for the new icebreaker and receive industry feedback.

The operational requirements document has been worked across the government, including the Defense Department, Commerce, Interior and the National Science Foundation, Zukunft said. In signing off on the requirements, Zukunft said he didn’t ask other departments to share in the cost of the icebreaker but said it was necessary to “lock down” the requirements to let industry know what the country needs.

The medium icebreaker Healy was built by Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] and the Polar Star by Lockheed Martin’s [LMT] old Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company. Brian Cuccias, president of HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding Division, told reporters at a briefing at SNA that his company is interested in the heavy icebreaker program.