If the Coast Guard is successful in receiving funding for a commercial polar icebreaker and then acquiring the ship, the vessel will not only become part of the service’s inventory and add capacity but also help with generating requirements for a new class of medium polar icebreakers, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz told a House panel on Thursday.
The Coast Guard is seeking $150 million in its fiscal year 2023 budget request to purchase and be able to crew a commercial icebreaker that would help fill a gap in current polar ice-breaking missions. Over time, the Coast Guard would likely need around $125 million to $250 million to “outfit” the ship, Schultz told the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, which met to consider the service’s budget request and needs.
The commercially available icebreaker “really starts to look a lot like what a medium breaker” looks like, he said, adding, “I’ve called it the arctic security cutter,” although how that is shaped will be up to incoming Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan and her team, Schultz said.
A commercially available medium icebreaker “is a bridging strategy. It’s a capacity building. It’ll shape our understanding, you know, rather than going out and do an acquisition and building into designs as we go, we can truly inform what the arctic security requirements might look like by operating a medium breaker,” he said. “We have not done that in an awfully long time.”
Fagan was confirmed by the Senate by voice vote on Wednesday evening. Her four-year term begins June 1, the day Schultz retires.
With the proposed funding and some additional “legislative language,” the commercial icebreaker could begin “some service” in 2025, which is two years before the first of the heavy polar security cutters (PSCs) begin operations, he said. The first PSC is expected to be accepted by the Coast Guard in spring 2025, and Schultz said the “hope” is that contractor Halter Marine will begin cutting steel on the ship this year.
Schultz said there is a 10-year-old domestic commercially available icebreaker with “very little use on it.”
The program of record for the PSC is three ships and Schultz said he has talked about the potential for four to six of the heavy icebreakers. He has also mentioned the need for six polar icebreakers, at least three of them heavy.
The service currently has two operational polar icebreakers, the heavy Polar Star, a 44-year-old vessel that typically leads an annual resupply mission to a U.S. ice station in Antarctica, and the medium Healy, a 23-year-old ship used for science and sovereignty missions in the Arctic.