When the Coast Guard’s new heavy icebreaker is delivered in a few years, it will have capabilities and flexibilty to perform a wide range of missions, including projecting sovereignty, according to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz.
“We’re looking at the Polar Security Cutter (PSC) as a multi-mission Coast Guard ship,” Schultz said in a telephone interview with Defense Daily on Friday. Beyond its heavy ice breaking capabilities, the PSC will provide command and control, domain awareness, intelligence, search and rescue, and environmental response, he said.
Schultz’s predecessor Adm. Paul Zukunft said last year the new icebreaker will also be designed with modularity in mind to eventually accommodate weapons and other capabilities (Defense Daily, Jan. 10, 2018). Schultz said the service will have more clarity later on the flexibility to plug-in future mission sets and capabilities.
The Coast Guard last week awarded VT Halter Marine a potential $1.9 billion contract to build and deliver up to three PSCs. Delivery of the first ship is scheduled for fiscal year 2024, but the contract includes incentives to accelerate delivery to FY ‘23, which is the original schedule the Coast Guard was working to.
The Coast Guard’s current plan is to acquire three PSCs and eventually three new medium polar icebreakers. The service currently has one operational heavy icebreaker, the 43-year old Polar Star, which is used to help resupply the U.S. science station in Antarctica, and one medium icebreaker, the Healy, which performs science missions in the Arctic.
The National Academies of Science in 2017 studied the Coast Guard’s icebreaker needs and said a fleet of four heavy icebreakers based on a common design would be the lowest cost approach (Defense Daily, July 11, 2017). The report said having four heavy icebreakers would mean the Coast Guard could sustain a presence in the Arctic and still have a vessel available for missions in the Antarctic.
Shultz said that for now the focus is on moving forward with the PSC program as planned. The service is requesting $35 million for the program in FY ’20, which Schultz said will keep “program management live,” with the hope that in FY ’21 there will be funding to construct the second ship.
Once the second vessel comes along and the production line is hot and cost savings are beginning to be realized and costs to build are fully understood, the Coast Guard will examine the cost of the PSC versus a “slightly different ship,” that’s more like the Healy, he said.
“I think we’ve got to do those puts and takes here, again, to better inform it when we get a little further down the road,” Schultz said.
The plan for now is to have three PSCs delivered between FY ’24 and FY ’28, he said.
The ships will have the capability to operate with two helicopters and Schultz said at the moment he wants the PSCs to have the ability to operate with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
I am inclined, I would arguably say committed, to a UAS capability on the Polar Security Cutter,” he said. “That’s where my thinking is today here in this conversation.”
The award to VT Halter Marine followed by a day the Coast Guard’s release of its Arctic Strategic Outlook, which frames its strategy in the region for the next five years (Defense Daily, April 22). The strategy emphasizes competition in the region from China and Russia, highlighting investments in icebreakers, infrastructure and other capabilities to project their respective interests in the area at a time when the changing climate is reducing sea ice and exposing the Arctic to more than just potential oil and gas exploration to include things like minerals, shipping routes, and tourism.
The strategic outlook says the Coast Guard will invest in the PSC as well as aviation assets, unmanned and autonomous systems and personnel for Arctic operations and calls for the service to maintain situational awareness and the need to overcome communications gaps there.
Schultz said that potential additional investments in assets and other capabilities for operations in the Arctic environment are to be determined. That space is still being “defined” and the service will take an “iterative” approach to meeting its future needs there, he said.
Once the first PSC comes online, Schultz said it will take over for the Polar Star. But depending how well the Polar Star is performing then and what the needs of the Coast Guard are, the legacy ship may be sustained for another season or two, he said.
Once the second and third PSCs come along, then “we’re starting to project some persistent presence in the Arctic,” Schultz said. “It’s not year-round and the environment doesn’t necessarily lend itself to year-round, but it’s increased access across the calendar year. And that’s really what we need as the Arctic evolves, to be honest with you. A competitive space more so than ever before.”
The Coast Guard had considered a service life extension program to keep the Polar Star operating until the second PSC is delivered but Schultz said the bridging strategy is a multi-year maintenance effort to keep the ship operational.
Schultz said that, for now, he’s “inclined” to think that the first PSC will replace the Polar Star, rather than keep it “around too long. We’re sinking a lot of money to keep the Star floating and operational.”
The Coast Guard is requesting $15 million in FY ’20 for maintenance work on the Polar Star and Schultz said this amount is roughly what will be needed annually until the ship isn’t needed.