There is a strategy in place for a third heavy polar icebreaker for the Coast Guard and the requirements building process is underway for new medium polar icebreakers, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said on Thursday.
Schultz said the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request includes $555 million toward the second Polar Security Cutter (PSC) “and there’s an acquisitions and funding strategy beyond that to build a third.”
The administration’s FY ’21 request didn’t include long-lead funding for a third PSC just as it didn’t provide a request for advanced funding for the second ship a year ago in its FY ’20 request. Congress added long-lead funding for the second PSC in the FY ’20 budget.
Schultz didn’t elaborate on the plans to fund the third PSC, although last year when he was defending the budget request before Congress he said the proposed funding would keep the program office while the Coast Guard and VT Halter Marine, the shipbuilder under contract to design and build the new heavy icebreakers, focused on the first ship.
“And today we’re developing operational requirements for medium icebreakers,” Schultz said in Charleston, S.C., at the annual State of the Coast Guard speech in. “A fleet of at least three of those Polar Security heavy breakers and three medium icebreakers will ensure American sovereignty and presence in the polar regions for decades to come.”
The Coast Guard has one operational heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Star, which just completed its annual resupply mission to a U.S. science station in Antarctica. The ship is more than 40 years old and the Coast Guard is planning to extend its service life until the mid-2020s when the second PSC becomes operational.
The Coast Guard also has one medium polar icebreaker, the 20-year old Healy, which conducts annual science missions every summer in the Arctic.
Schultz pointed out that when the Healy operates above the Arctic Circle communications are “unreliable.”
The Coast Guard has experimented with small satellites to improve communications in the Arctic and Schultz said that the service is examining the issue further, noting that in January communications in the harsh environment in Northern Alaska were impaired.
“As Commandant, I need my operational commanders to be able to communicate with every Coast Guard asset, anytime, anywhere,” he said. “We are exploring new satellite communications with the Department of Defense and partners there as well as private industry, as well as renewing land-based communications in Alaska. And Arctic communications are truly a ‘whole-of-government’ issue. We must work together to solve our communication blackout in the Arctic now.”