The White House National Security Adviser and the Navy may be on the verge of agreeing to move forward shortly with a plan to lease medium polar icebreakers to fill a near-term gap in the Coast Guard’s icebreaking needs, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) said last week.
Sullivan, during a Dec. 8 hearing that he chaired that morning on the Coast Guard’s capabilities in the Arctic, said he spoke earlier that day with White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, who told him that the U.S. is looking at leasing polar icebreakers from Finland.
“My understanding is the White House National Security Adviser [and] possibly the Navy with regard to some of their funding, are looking at moving forward on leases soon, hopefully as early as the end of this month,” Sullivan told Adm. Charles Ray, vice commandant of the Coast Guard.
Ray replied that discussions on leasing are part of a presidential directive issued in June, noting that a joint Coast Guard and Navy group are looking into this.
Later during the hearing, in response to a question from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) about potentially buying polar icebreakers from NATO allies or friendly Arctic nations, Ray said the “The bridging strategy that makes the most sense to the Coast Guard at this point is this potential to lease one of these icebreakers.”
Ray pointed out to Sullivan that the potential leasing strategy is not in place of the Coast Guard eventually acquiring new polar icebreakers.
A Coast Guard spokesman on Wednesday told Defense Daily that the exact number if icebreakers that would be leased hasn’t been determined and “depends on individual vessel availability and capabilities, crew availability, funding, and other factors.” He also said the options only included medium icebreakers because no heavy icebreakers are currently available that meet the service’s minimum requirements.
The Coast Guard currently has two operational polar icebreakers, the heavy icebreaker Polar Star and the medium vessel Healy. The Healy is completing an emergency dry dock repair to its starboard propulsion motor after a fire broke out in August just after it had departed for an annual mission to the Arctic.
Ray said the new 115-ton motor, which had to be shipped from Baltimore via the Panama Canal to the dry dock at Mare Island near San Francisco, has been installed in the Healy and the 420-foot ship is expected depart this month for a dockside availability at its homeport in Seattle and be ready for its annual Arctic mission next summer.
Meantime, the Polar Star, which typically is used each winter to break ice in Antarctica in support of a resupply mission for U.S. scientists, is on its way to the Arctic to conduct operations. With just a single polar icebreaker operational at the moment, the U.S. has no self-rescue capability for the Polar Star, which is more than 40 years old and has suffered is share of major casualties.
The Coast Guard plans to purchase three new heavy icebreakers, called Polar Security Cutters (PSCs). In 2019, the service awarded VT Halter Marine a contract to build the first of the new PSCs. Production on the ship is expected to start early in 2021 and be delivered in 2024, with the final two icebreakers arriving two to three years later.
The Coast Guard spokesman said a bridging strategy is being examined because the first PSC won’t begin operations until 2027. Any leased vessels, which potentially could be domestic or foreign flagged, would operate in the Arctic “to project U.S. sovereignty; protect vital economic and national security interests; and conduct maritime domain awareness, search and rescue, and other Coast Guard missions,” he wrote in an email response to questions.
The Coast Guard is planning to extend the life of the Polar Star at least into the mid-2020s until the second or third PSC comes along.
The Coast Guard is also in the early phases of developing requirements for three new medium icebreakers. The Healy is 20 years old.
Ray said that a key shortfall of leasing commercial polar icebreakers is they aren’t built to military specifications, highlighting communications, damage control and compartmentalization in case of an incident.
“They’re a different cat,” Ray said. “We would have to do some work to them. It’s not just, take one off the shelf. If it was, we probably would have done that a long time ago. So, there will be some work required to make these for the Coast Guard. But with that said, it is the commandant’s position and our position we will certainly consider this and work to see what makes sense to bridge this gap.”
At least twice during the hearing of the Commerce, Science, & Transportation Subcommittee on Security, Lee asked about modifying existing law that prohibits the U.S. from buying the new icebreakers from a foreign country like Finland to more quickly and inexpensively meet the Coast Guard’s requirements.
Ray said that it’s in the “national interest to preserving” the shipbuilding base, which is “declining.” The shipbuilding industrial base won World War II, he said, “so my starting position is that we need to protect this industrial base.”