Contrary to a Coast Guard study that calls for a fleet of six polar icebreakers evenly divided between heavy and medium variants, the National Academies of Science on Tuesday released a report recommending that the service operate four heavy polar icebreakers base on a common design, which offers the lowest cost strategy

Proceeding with a single class means that only one design will be needed, which will provide cost savings,” says the report, which was prepared at the behest of Congress. “The committee has found that the fourth heavy icebreaker could be built for a lower cost than the lead ship of a medium icebreaker class.”

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star. The cutter was built by the former Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company and was commissioned in 1977. Photo: Coast Guard
Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star. is the only operational heavy icebreaker in the service’s inventory. The ship was commissioned in 1977. The Coast Guard also operates the medium icebreaker Healy. Photo: Coast Guard

The Coast Guard is currently working with five companies through separate contracts on design studies for a heavy polar icebreaker. A mission needs statement prepared by the service calls for three heavy and three medium polar icebreakers.

The Coast Guard currently operates one heavy polar icebreaker, which is nearing the end of its service life, and one medium polar icebreaker, that still has years of expected service life in front of it. The Coast Guard wants three heavy icebreakers so that one is always available for operations in either the Arctic or Antarctic regions.

The Coast Guard hasn’t finalized its cost estimates for the lead heavy icebreaker but has put the per unit cost at about $1 billion per vessel. The service is working to bring that cost down.

The NAS letter report says with buying four heavy icebreakers of common design would mean an average unit cost of $791 million per vessel, still allowing the Coast Guard to have three ships for a sustained Arctic presence and one available for missions in the Antarctic.

Warming and changing sea conditions, coupled with increased human industrial and economic activity in the Arctic, mean the United States must have a presence in the polar regions for purposes of sovereignty, leadership and research, says the report, Acquisition and Operation of Polar Icebreakers: Fulfilling the Nation’s Needs, prepared by the NAS’ Transportation Research Board.

“The nation is ill-equipped to protect its interests and maintain leadership in these regions and has fallen behind other Arctic nations, which have mobilized to expand their access to ice-covered regions,” the report says. “The United States now has the opportunity to move forward and acquire the capability to fulfill these needs.”

The report also says that the icebreakers should be owned and operated by the Coast Guard, adding that government ownership would be less expensive than any type of lease financing. Any contracting arrangement should be a block-buy with fixed-price incentive fee terms, it says.

The cost of the lead ship is estimated to be $983 million, with the costs of the next three vessels put at $759 million, $729 million and $692 million respectively, for a total program design and build cost of nearly $3.2 billion, the NAS report says.

The estimated costs for design and construction of four medium polar icebreakers are put at $786 million for the lead vessel, with the others costing $582 million, $554 million and $549 million respectively.

The study also looks at the estimated costs of various combinations of heavy and medium icebreaker fleets, with the price for three heavy and one medium put at nearly $3.3 billion, for three heavy and two medium, $3.8 billion, and three heavy and three medium, $4.4 billion.

The report estimates that a heavy icebreaker would be 433-feet long with a beam of 89-feet.

 “For more than 30 years, studies have underscored the need for U.S. icebreakers to maintain presence, sovereignty, leadership, and research capacity, but the nation has failed to make the recommended investments, leaving the U.S. ill-equipped to protect its interests, while other nations have mobilized to expand their access to ice-covered regions,” Richard West, a retired rear admiral with the Navy and the chair of the study group, said in a statement. “Given the strong warming and related environmental changes occurring in both the Arctic and Antarctic, the deficiencies in U.S. icebreaking capacity have become more critical.”

The Coast Guard hopes to get its first new heavy polar icebreaker under contract in FY ’19. The House Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security panel on Tuesday marked up its version of the FY ’18 spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security. The bill contains funding to continue work on the icebreaker but at our press time it wasn’t clear how much funding is available for the program. 

Congress provided $150 million for the program in FY ’17 and the Coast Guard is seeking $19 million in FY ’18, but would prefer having more funds.