Talk in government about the Coast Guard’s new heavy polar icebreaker has turned silent and the fact that that the company contracted to build the polar security cutter (PSC) was sold last year for a bargain price raises serious concerns about the status of the program, Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) warned on Wednesday.
“But nobody in the government is talking about it,” she said during a Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing to review the fiscal year 2024 budget request for the Department of Homeland Security. “The polar security cutter seems to be in big, big trouble. That’s really worrisome.”
VT Halter Marine in 2019 won a nearly $750 million contract for the design and construction of the first PSC. In 2021, the company received another $552 million for construction of the second heavy polar icebreaker. The first ship was slated to be delivered in 2024 but Halter Marine never began construction of the vessel.
The Coast Guard plans to acquire three PSCs.
In late 2022, Bollinger Shipyards acquired Mississippi-based VT Halter Marine and a related ship repair yard from Singapore’s ST Engineering for $15 million. The deal contains a potential $10.3 million earn out provision.
Murkowski cited an article in Forbes about Bollinger’s purchase of the shipyards and the low price paid saying it is “a little bit disturbing” that Halter Marine “walked away from such a massive capital investment for so little should really put a chill over the polar security cutter program.”
Addressing Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Murkowski asked, “How do we make sure that this program is not going to founder? How do we make sure that this program is on track? And do you have any specifics in terms of actual timelines when this first polar security cutter may be operational?”
Mayorkas said he would have to get back on the schedule.
The Coast Guard in December said delivery of the first PSC may slip from 2026 until 2027. However, the Coast Guard doesn’t know when construction on the ship will begin.
Earlier in March, a Coast Guard spokesman told Defense Daily that a “production start date has not been identified” and that first a final critical design review and production readiness review must be completed.
“Both reviews are dependent on adequate design maturity and successful completion is required for the start of production,” he said.
Originally, construction on the ship was expected to begin in 2021. However, the program was set back by the COVID-19 pandemic and related travel restrictions. So far, it hasn’t seemed to recover.
Murkowski also asked Mayorkas why Coast Guard plans to acquire a commercial polar icebreaker as a gapfiller for its medium icebreaker needs isn’t a “stated priority” in DHS budget documents. Mayorkas answered that the commercial effort is being treated as a priority.
The Coast Guard requested $150 million for a commercial icebreaker in FY ’23. Congress appeared poised to fund the program but eliminated it in the FY ’23 omnibus spending bill. The Coast Guard is seeking $150 million again for the ship in the FY ’24 budget request.