Until detailed design of the first polar security cutter (PSC) is completed the Coast Guard won’t know when construction of the heavy icebreaker can begin, but the ship will probably not be delivered in fiscal year 2025, which is the current plan, and even 2026 is a risky bet, making 2027 a possibility, a Coast Guard official said on Wednesday.
“And in fact, we assess that there’s considerable schedule risk even for delivery in fiscal year ’26,” Vice Adm. Peter Gautier, deputy commandant for Operations, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. He added that “we’re at risk to be into fiscal year ’27.”
When the Coast Guard awarded the PSC contract to VT Halter Marine, the service expected the lead ship be begin construction in 2021 and be delivered in the first half of 2024, with incentives for potential delivery in late 2023. Earlier this year, then Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said he expected construction to begin this year with delivery in 2025.
However, this fall, the Coast Guard said that construction won’t begin until the “shipbuilder has attained sufficient design maturity.” The service has also let several special studies contracts to help reduce production risks.
In November, Bollinger Shipyards acquired VT Halter Marine from Singapore’s ST Engineering. The deal includes the PSC contract, which covers at least three polar icebreakers worth about $1.9 billion initially. Awards have been made for the first two ships. The life-cycle cost of the PSC program is pegged at $13.3 billion.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the full committee, said at the hearing to examine the Coast Guard’s Arctic Strategy that he “objected” to the award to Halter Marine in 2019 as “a really dumb idea” because the Mississippi-based shipbuilder had never built a ship “like that before.” He praised the acquisition by Bollinger, which has “built a bunch of Coast Guard boats with never a single defect.”
Bollinger is currently building the Coast Guard’s 154-foot fast response cutters. The design of the PSC is based on Germany’s 460-foot Polarstern II icebreaker used for research in the Arctic. The PSC is one of the Coast Guard’s top acquisition priorities, along with the medium-endurance offshore patrol cutter.
The Coast Guard currently has two operational polar icebreakers, the 399-foot Polar Star, a heavy ship, and the 420-foot Healy, a medium icebreaker. The Healy in November returned from a four-month deployment that included passage to the North Pole and the Polar Star is currently en route to Antarctica to support the resupply of a U.S. science station.
The Polar Star is undergoing annual fixes to extend the 46-year-old ship’s life later into this decade. To help fill a gap in polar icebreaking missions, the Coast Guard is seeking $150 million from Congress in FY ’23 for a commercial icebreaker that would have to be outfitted to meet the service’s missions. The relevant congressional committees support the request.
Schultz said earlier this year that if Congress supports the budget request and provides legislative relief, the commercial icebreaker could perform some operations beginning in 2025.
Gautier acknowledged Congress’ support of the commercial program and related relief to field the ship sooner. He said the ship would undergo a “phased approach” over two years, with initial work around damage control, “basic” command and control, a “paint job and staffing” to become a Coast Guard cutter with additional work over the two-year period to meet all requirements so that it can be homeported for operations in the Arctic.
The Coast Guard doesn’t buy ships commercially, so this is “a bit of a voyage of discovery,” he said.
Gautier later told the panel that the evaluation of the commercial icebreaker is expected to be “quick” before going ahead with an acquisition.
Asked by Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) whether the Coast Guard has a “specific work plan” to obtain and outfit the commercial ship, Gautier replied, “We have honestly a lot of details to be filled in on that. We need to take a deeper look at the icebreaker.”
There has been an initial evaluation of the ship and a deeper dive will follow the acquisition, he said.
Garamendi slammed the Coast Guard’s effort on the commercial icebreaker, saying the service has had this on their plate for more than a year. He also asked about the potential buy of a foreign icebreaker from Finland or Sweden, but Gautier said statutory relief from “Buy American” provisions would be needed.
The commercial icebreaker is considered a medium ship and will help inform requirements for a new class of medium icebreakers called the Arctic security cutter. Gautier said the focus is on the PSC but the service in the future plans to establish a program of record to examine requirements for the Arctic security cutter, which would eventually replace the 23-year-old Healy.
The heavy icebreakers will primarily be focused on missions in the Antarctic and the medium icebreakers in the Arctic, particularly for research.
“The research community would like to have a dedicated icebreaker in the north that we could rely on to conduct our research,” Gautier said.