Work done between the Coast Guard and the Navy on a new class of heavy polar icebreakers the Coast Guard hopes to begin buying within a year has included making reservations for space, weight and power to add offensive weapons systems at a later date if necessary, the Coast Guard’s top officer said on Wednesday.

No decisions have been made on what weapons might go into the icebreakers, but they would be a “module” for the ships, fit into a CONEX box, and have to work in harsh, frigid cold weather environments of the polar regions, Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said during the question and answer session a speech he gave at Surface Navy Association’s annual national conference.

Coast Guard heavy polar icebreaker Polar Star (foreground) shown cutting a channel in the Ross Sea as part of Operation Deep Freeze 2017. Photo: Chief Petty Officer David Mosley
Coast Guard heavy polar icebreaker Polar Star (foreground) shown cutting a channel in the Ross Sea as part of Operation Deep Freeze 2017 in the Antarctic. Photo: Chief Petty Officer David Mosley

The preliminary design work for the icebreakers provides for the U.S. to “fully weaponize these and make these a capable platform offensively in the event this world changes in the next five, 10, even 15 years from now,” Zukunft said. “What we can see is each year greater and greater recedence of sea ice. Russia is not abiding by freedom of navigation if anyone wishes to use the northern sea route. So, if we’re trying to do freedom of navigation with a surface asset, we are the only service that has this tool in our inventory.”

Zukunft also said that the Coast Guard and Navy have been able to find offsets in the design for the icebreaker to lower the cost of the lead ship to under $1 billion. Subsequent icebreakers are expected to cost even less as long as requirements are kept in check with each new vessel and economies of scale can be achieved, he said.

Current Coast Guard plans call for acquiring three heavy polar icebreakers and three medium icebreakers. The service has one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which currently is breaking ice in Antarctica to help with the regular resupply missions at the McMurdo Station U.S. Antarctic research station.

Whether the Coast Guard decides to alter the mix of icebreakers, Zukunft said whether a fourth heavy icebreaker can be built for less than the first medium icebreaker, are “discussions [that] need to happen as well. They won’t happen on my watch.” Zukunft’s four-year tenure leading the Coast Guard ends this year.

Last July, the National Academies of Science issued a report recommending the Coast Guard procure just four heavy icebreakers, saying the common design offers the lowest cost strategy, adding the fourth heavy vessel would cost less than the lead medium icebreaker (Defense Daily, July 11, 2017).

“We’ll have to test the fiscal waters to explore the realm of the possible,” Zukunft said. Whatever the case, he said once the award is made for the lead heavy vessel, a block buy contract needs to be done for the remaining ships to lock in procurement efficiencies.

If the Department of Homeland Security has to fund the acquisition of the icebreakers, the discussion on how to move forward beyond the lead ship will likely occur within a year or two, Zukunft said.

The Polar Star is nearing the end of its service life and is using cannibalized parts from the deactivated Polar Sea heavy icebreaker to help sustain operations. The Coast Guard hopes that the Polar Star can continue to operate until the first new heavy icebreaker is delivered, which is scheduled for FY ‘23.

A Request for Proposals for detailed design and construction of the lead ship in the new class of icebreakers is expected to be released before the end of March, and a contract award made in FY ’19. Zukunft told reporters after his speech that he’s hoping for a contract award early in FY ’19, adding that this will be “budget dependent.”

The Coast Guard has one medium polar icebreaker, the Healy. However, Zukunft said that if the Polar Star were to break down in the Antarctic, the U.S. and its allies don’t have any vessel that could come to its rescue to aid a breakout.

Last February, the Coast Guard awarded five companies a combined $20 million in one-year design study contracts for the new heavy icebreaker with the goal of finding ways to reduce program costs and schedule timelines. Some industry officials that Defense Daily spoke to at the Surface Navy Association believe the schedule for delivering the first icebreaker by FY ’23 is tight, with little margin for error.

A spokesman in the Coast Guard’s acquisition directorate told Defense Daily on Wednesday via an email response to questions that the service is considering extending the current design contract “to have each team complete a detailed analysis of the Coast Guard’s draft specification and to provide additional insight on potential cost and schedule risks.” Any contract modification would be awarded before the current contract expires, which is Feb. 22, he said.

The five companies working on the design studies are Bollinger Shipyards, the U.S.-based shipbuilding division of Italy’s Fincantieri, General Dynamics’ [GD] NASSCO shipbuilding division, Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII], and VT Halter Marine, which is the U.S.-based shipbuilding division of Singapore’s ST Engineering.

Russia has a fleet of about 40 icebreakers and is building two corvettes that can break Arctic ice, carry cruise missiles, and are expected to be operational by 2020, a development that Zukunft said will result in “militarizing the environment.” He noted that Russia has “claimed” most of the Arctic, although the United Nations hasn’t weighed in on this claim.

Zukunft also noted that China has one polar icebreaker and is building a second, adding that they are consistently researching in the extended continental shelf of the U.S. in the Arctic region where it has oil, gas and mineral rights. This “strategic reserve,” which is contained in an area the size of Texas, might not be accessible now, but he said that while the U.S. usually plays “the short game” of no more than a few years out, China “plays the long game, and so they’re playing the long game out there.”

Until the U.S. ratifies the Law of the Sea Convention, it doesn’t have a forum to lay claim to its extended continental shelf, he said.