The Coast Guard and Navy on Tuesday awarded VT Halter Marine a potential $1.9 billion contract to begin detailed design and eventually construction on up to three Polar Security Cutters (PSCs) for the Coast Guard, the first new heavy polar icebreakers for the service in more than 40 years at a time when competition from Russia and even China is heating up in the Arctic region.

The initial contract is a fixed-price award of $745.9 million for the first PSC, which would begin construction in 2021 and be delivered in 2024, one year later than planned. The contract has options, that if exercised, would bring the value to $1.9 billion for three PSCs.

Coast Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star in dry dock at Mare Island Dry Dock in 2018. Photo: Mare Island Dry Dock

The award announcement also said that the contract contains financial incentives to deliver the ship earlier.

VT Halter Marine won out against four other competitors, Bollinger Shipbuilding, General Dynamics [GD], Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] and a U.S. division of Italy’s Fincantieri. VT Halter Marine, Inc. is based in the U.S. and is part of Singapore’s ST Engineering.

Most of the work, 61 percent, will be performed in Pascagoula, Miss., 24 percent in Louisiana, and the remainder in Illinois, California, Alabama, Florida, and various other locations.

The contract comes against the backdrop of increasing human activity, much of it economic, in the Arctic due to climate change and melting sea ice. Russia already has a large fleet of various icebreakers and China has ambitions in the Arctic as well.

“Against the backdrop of great power competition, the Polar Security Cutter is key to our nation’s presence in the polar regions,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said in a statement. “With the strong support of the Trump administration and the United States Congress, this contract award marks an important step toward building the nation’s full complement of six polar icebreakers to meet the unique mission demands that have emerged from increased commerce, tourism, research, and international activities in the Arctic and Antarctic.”

The Coast Guard currently has one operational heavy icebreaker, the 43-year old Polar Star, that operates in the Antarctic but no self-rescue capability for the ship. It also operates a medium icebreaker, the Healy, which is used for scientific missions in the Arctic.

Having three PSCs would provide a self-rescue capability for the heavy icebreakers and allow them to operate in the Arctic and Antarctic. The Coast Guard also has a requirement for three new medium icebreakers but that it is possible the service could decide to build more PSCs instead.

The Coast Guard is seeking $35 million in long-lead material funding in fiscal year 2020 for the second PSC.

VT Halter Marine builds various craft, including Liquid Natural Gas tankers, barges, land, naval patrol boats, passenger cruise vessels and others. The company didn’t provide a comment at our press time on Tuesday.