President Donald Trump has tasked his senior national and economic security leadership with assessing the nation’s needs for a fleet of Polar Security Cutters (PSCs) for operations in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, to include nuclear-powered assets, in a surprise memorandum issued June 9. He also directed a study be done on near- and mid-term leasing options for polar icebreakers.
The memorandum directs a review of requirements for a fleet of PSCs and related assets that would ensure “a persistent United States presence in the Arctic and Antarctic regions in support of national interests and in furtherance of the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, as appropriate.”
The memo cautions that in developing a “suitable fleet” of PSCs, the Coast Guard’s medium-endurance Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) program not be “adversely impacted.”
The Coast Guard is currently moving out on a program designed to acquire at least three heavy PSCs, which would allow the U.S. to maintain fairly steady operations in the Arctic. The service eventually also hopes to acquire at least three medium-type PSCs.
The PSC and OPC programs are the Coast Guard’s top two acquisition priorities. VT Halter Marine is under contract for the first PSC, which is scheduled for delivery in June 2024, and Eastern Shipbuilding Group is building the first four OPCs of a planned 25-ship buy. The Coast Guard has requested funding in the fiscal year 2021 budget for a second heavy PSC.
Heather Conley, an expert on national security issues in the Arctic with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said funding has always been the key issue in obtaining polar icebreakers, not need. She told Defense Daily in an email reply that the memorandum “appears to be another rapid study to confirm or perhaps expand upon what the U.S. needs.”
Trump’s memo to his Secretaries of State, Defense, Commerce, Energy and Homeland Security, and to the director of the Office of Management and Budget and National Security Advisor, wants a benefits and risk analysis of a fleet of at least three heavy PSCs. The study is due within 60 days.
That study will look at what additional operational capabilities—and related costs—a fleet of heavy and medium polar icebreakers might need in support of national security missions. These capabilities include unmanned aviation and surface systems, space systems, sensors for maritime domain awareness, command and control systems, secure communications and data transfer systems, intelligence collection systems, defensive armament, and potential nuclear propulsion systems.
Former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said prior to his retirement two years ago that the PSC would have a weapons capability designed into the vessel, but that wasn’t a priority focus at the time.
Conley said that previously it hasn’t been “clearly defined whether these icebreakers would be weapons capable or not,” adding that Russia recently said it will be arming its new icebreakers.
Earlier this spring, Conley co-authored a CSIS report on the need for a major expansion of the U.S. commitment to the Arctic, writing that the nation lags behind more committed efforts by Russia and even China (Defense Daily, April 1).
Even without great power competition in the Arctic, she said U.S. investments in capabilities for the region are important in protecting economic rights, freedom of navigation and territorial waters and coastline.
The study will also look at “the full range” of missions in the Arctic that could be done by medium PSCs versus heavy PSCs, including help with exploring for resources and laying undersea cables.
The use case analyses “shall identify the optimal number and type of polar security icebreakers for ensuring a persistent presence in both the Arctic and, as appropriate, the Antarctic regions,” the five-page memo says.
The memo also wants the study to examine basing needs, including identifying at least two bases in the U.S. and at least two at international ports.
Alaska’s congressional delegation has been pushing the Pentagon to create an operational base in their state from which Coast Guard and Defense Department assets can operate. Conley said she assumes that one of the basing options out of the new study will likely be in Alaska.
Regarding international basing of PSCs, given reports that the U.S. is considering withdrawing some forces from Europe and wants to pay less for the forces it maintains there, “this may not be too easy of a sell at the moment to our allies.”
Leasing options for domestic and foreign icebreakers, as opposed to procuring PSCs, will also be explored in the study.
Separate from the study, the president wants the State Department, in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, to “identify viable polar security icebreaker leasing options” that could be provided by “partner nations” to fill gaps in a national capability between fiscal years 2022 and 2029, the memo states.
This leasing option is being driven by the aging Polar Star, the Coast Guard’s only operational polar icebreaker that is about to undergo a phased service life extension program to keep it operational until the mid-2020s, about the time when the second PSC will be delivered. The review of leased icebreakers should include national and economic security missions as well as scientific research.
The Polar Star is used once a year to cut a safe channel through ice in the Antarctic in support of a resupply mission to the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station. In recent years, although not this year, the ship has suffered major mechanical issues during its mission, a source of uneasiness in Congress and the Coast Guard. If the Polar Star breaks down during its icebreaking operations, the U.S. has no self-rescue capability for the vessel.
The Coast Guard also operates one medium polar icebreaker, the Healy, which conducts annual scientific missions in the Arctic.
Conley said addressing the potential icebreaker gap that could be created by a loss of the Polar Star is an important highlight of the president’s memorandum.
“Recognizing this vulnerability and addressing it is the most significant shift in thinking,” she said.
In a statement provided by the Coast Guard, the service said, “This cabinet memo directs the interagency to study the polar icebreaking fleet mix and capabilities. The Coast Guard will continue to coordinate with interagency partners to ensure that the Nation’s icebreaking fleet supports the interests of the United States in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.”