The first of at least three new heavy polar icebreakers that the Coast Guard plans to soon put under contract will cost about $925 million with the follow-on Polar Security Cutters (PSC) likely costing significantly less, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said on Thursday.

The initial PSC will cost around $925 million, “plus or minus million dollar range,” Schultz told the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security subcommittee in response to a question from panel chair Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). During his response to Capito, he later said the price could be around $940 million or $925 million.

Schultz said he is “loath to put a number out there” for the cost of the second and PSCs but said these ships will “potentially” be in the $700 million range.

Coast Guard officials have said previously the cost of the first PSC will be under $1 billion and that subsequent vessels will cost substantially less.

An award for the detailed design and construction of the first PSC is expected in late April or May, Schultz said. The ship is expected to be delivered in 2023, which Schultz said is “optimistic,” in response to a question from ranking member Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.), adding early 2024 is a possibility.

The Coast Guard’s Polar Star heavy icebreaker conducting ice breaking operations in Antarctica in Jan. 2017. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer David Mosley.

The Coast Guard’s current requirement is for three new heavy icebreakers and three new medium icebreakers to operate in the polar regions. The PSC is the more immediate concern because the service’s only heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, began operations 43 years ago and will require a service life extension program to keep useful into the mid-2020s.

Schultz highlighted for the subcommittee “several high-risk casualties to the ship’s engineering systems” during a recently completed mission to Antarctica.

“Events like these reinforce the reality that we are only one major casualty away from leaving the nation without any heavy icebreaking capability,” he said.

Once the PSC construction effort is underway, if it achieves “economic savings,” then it may begin a “conversation about more Polar Security Cutters that looks a lot different from what the medium breaker might look like,” Schultz said.

The Coast Guard received $655 million in the fiscal year 2019 budget for the first PSC and $20 million for long-lead materials for the second icebreaker. Congress previously appropriated $300 million in the Navy’s shipbuilding budget to be applied to the heavy icebreaker program.

The Coast Guard’s budget request for the PSC in FY ’20 is $35 million, which Schultz said keeps the program going “forward,” although he suggested additional funding would enable “economic efficiencies” toward a second PSC by allowing the purchase of additional long-lead materials.

In the Coast Guard’s FY ’21 budget request, Schultz told Tester to expect to see “another big number” to acquire the second PSC. Once the FY ’21 budget is appropriated, an award for a second PSC would come six to eight months later, he said.

Bollinger Shipyards, General Dynamics [GD], a U.S. division of Italy’s Fincantieri, Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII], U.S-based VT Halter Marine, part of Singapore’s ST Engineering, are all vying for the PSC contract.

The PSC will be “world class,” Schultz said, and be available to operate in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. It will feature a classified operating room, called a sensitive compartmented information facility, for sending and receiving “national security level information,” he said. It will also have a flight deck for a helicopter, he said.