Cutting of steel on the first new Coast Guard heavy polar icebreaker could happen in the coming months, which is close to a year later than originally expected, but the forecast to start production still appears hazy.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said on Monday that “They tell me we should be cutting steel on the first articles here in the coming months, so, hopefully there is steel cutting this year and contractually…we’re on contract for that ship [in] late ’24.”
VT Halter Marine, which is based in Pascagoula, Miss., is the prime contractor for the polar security cutter (PSC) program. The Coast Guard plans to acquire at least three of the heavy icebreakers, which are expected to give the service a more persistent presence for Arctic operations than current icebreaking assets provide.
The Coast Guard originally had expected the first PSC to be delivered in the first half of 2024 the potential to accelerate delivery into late 2023. That appears unlikely now given that the start of construction appears to be about a year behind schedule.
The Government Accountability Office said earlier this year that VT Halter Marine had experienced delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and also raised concerns that the design of the ship may not mature as quickly as planned.
Schultz, speaking at a virtual event hosted by the Brookings Institution, highlighted that there is a lack of recent experience in the U.S. when it comes to building heavy icebreakers and cautioned that the schedule could be fluid.
“We have not built a heavy icebreaker in this nation for a good part of a half a century, so, that’s a different kind of steel work and all, but we’re guardedly encouraged that the polar security program is moving ahead on pace,” he said. “You know, we took what’s normally a nine-to-10-year period to build a ship and tried to compress that down on a very aggressive…six-year timeline. So, there probably [is] going to be a little maneuver space in there and I think the real conversation…just to wrap up the thought is, there’s probably a conversation for more than three polar security cutters.”
Congress has provided appropriations to build the first two PSCs and the Coast Guard is seeking long-lead time material funding for the third ship in the fiscal year 2022 budget request.
Overall, the funding for the PSC program is “solid,” Schultz said.
The Coast Guard currently operates one heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Star, and one medium polar icebreaker, the Healy. The Polar Star, which is more than 40 years old, is beginning a series of service life extensions to keep the ship operational until later this decade when the second PSC is expected to be delivered.
The Biden administration is seeking $1.6 billion for the Coast Guard’s procurement account in FY ’22, more than $600 million less than Congress provided in FY ’21. However, Schultz touted the $9 billion request for the service’s operations and support account, which is more than $500 million above the FY ’21 appropriation and in line with his priority of fixing Coast Guard readiness.
“That’s a good news story there,” he said, adding that “What I need, and I’ve talked about it consistently is a ready Coast Guard. In need about 3 to 5 percent of annual budget growth. If we can do that based on the last couple years of budgets, the ’22 strong proposal from the administration, I can deliver or my successor can deliver a healthy Coast Guard that can get after these things across the globe.”