The Coast Guard continues to develop requirements and put resources toward its current goal of having a new fleet of at least six polar icebreakers, but if funding were available it could use a force of nine icebreakers capable operating in the high-latitudes, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said on Wednesday.
Schultz said he was asked by the U.S. “national security apparatus” what the “real needs of the nation” would be in the polar regions if there were not constraints on funding and he answered with nine icebreakers.
“And what we really looked at is potentially six Polar Security Cutters (PSCs) and maybe three Arctic Security Cutters; a fleet of nine U.S. flagged icebreakers,” he said during a presentation to the annual Surface Navy Association, which is holding its national symposium virtually this week.
VT Halter Marine is under contract to the Coast Guard for up to three PSCs, which are heavy icebreakers and will replace the service’s current lone heavy icebreaker, the aging Polar Star. The company early this year is slated to cut steel on the first PSC with delivery planned for 2024.
The Coast Guard is currently developing requirements for its Arctic Security Cutter, which will be a medium polar icebreaker, Schultz said. The service currently operates one medium icebreaker, the Healy.
Asked whether the Coast Guard has plans to further its polar operating capability with ice-reinforced hulls on any of its ships, Schultz replied not at the moment. The Coast Guard already has nine of a planned buy of 11 high-endurance National Security Cutters and has contracted with Eastern Shipbuilding Group for its first four medium-endurance Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs).
This year the Coast Guard is recompeting the OPC contract to begin with the fifth hull and eventually plans to acquire 25 of the vessels. Schultz said that there could be a “longer ball conversation about ice-reinforced OPCs toward the end of that production line.” Later, he said that longer-term there “might be some trade space” to discuss ice hardening the service’s medium and high-endurance cutters.
Right now, though, Schultz said he’s focused first on the PSCs and then the Arctic Security Cutters to meet the Coast Guard’s polar icebreaking needs. Congress has appropriated construction funding for the second PSC and Schultz said he feels there is “good support to move forward” with the third ship.
Last year the Coast Guard was asked by the White House to have a look at potential needs for nuclear-powered icebreakers but Schultz said the service doesn’t have the capability to operate these vessels and can’t afford to “with all the demands on our plate.”
In addition to breaking ice, the Coast Guard’s polar icebreakers are used for scientific missions, maintaining presence in the regions, defending economic interests, conducting search and rescue, law enforcement and other missions.