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Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs
graphic areas (such as concurrent operations in the Arctic and Antarctic), open additional solutions for conducting Antarctic logistics, allow safer multiple-ship operations in the most demanding ice conditions and areas, and increase opportunities for international expeditions. Finally, an up-front decision to build two new polar icebreakers will allow economies in the design and construction process and provide a predictable cost reduction for the second ship.
The committee was asked to consider alternative ship ownership options. Considering the McMurdo break-in mission alone, the committee found that only a U.S.-flagged, U.S.-owned, and U.S.-operated ship provides sufficiently reliable control. While that ship might be leased commercially through a long-term lease-build arrangement, from a total fleet perspective it may be more cost-effective if science missions users only pay incremental costs—as has been the case in the past—and if U.S. Coast Guard provides McMurdo resupply support from the multimission icebreaker fleet. Also, the sovereign presence of the United States is not well served by a “leased ship.” Commercially or internationally leased ships may not provide a practical backup for a uniformed service ship that is not owned by the United States government. Such commercial or international arrangements do not ensure that the United States could assert its foreign policy at times and places of its choosing. Increasing world demand for polar icebreakers to support Arctic oil and gas exploration and development has significantly reduced the number of available ships, making long-term lease of an existing ship difficult.
The U.S. Coast Guard has a legacy of almost 140 years of supporting the nation’s icebreaking needs in the polar regions. The U.S. Coast Guard has the overarching missions to protect the public, the environment, and U.S. economic interests throughout the maritime environment, including ice-covered waters. The committee finds that the U.S. Coast Guard is the best federal agency to operate polar icebreakers in continued support of vital national interests in the rapidly changing polar regions. In this, the committee agrees with the PIRS 84 study that concluded, “An icebreaker fleet is essential to the national interest” and “should be operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.”
The committee concludes that the research support mission and other U.S. Coast Guard missions can, in many cases, be compatibly performed with a single ship. The two existing Polar class ships and the HEALY are equipped to support research and have productively served that mission. The committee believes that it is advantageous to configure the U.S. Coast Guard ships with appropriate science facilities as well as facilities for the Coast Guard’s more general missions. In the long run, constituting the nation’s icebreaking fleet as a single fleet of complementary ships will yield more capability and should be more cost-effective than if each agency independently acquires icebreaking ships. This approach is in line with the long-held belief that the nation can gain the greatest economy from the sharing of assets across agencies and programs when appropriate and feasible and that those users should share in the incremental increase in cost associated with directed usage of national assets.
The committee was asked in what manner to acquire ships. The benefits of constructing a new ship were compared to overhauling and extending the life of POLAR STAR or POLAR SEA. A so-called service life extension program (SLEP) involves wholesale replacement of the propulsion plant and auxiliary, control, and habitation support systems. While the cost of a new hull could be avoided, the retrofit of most systems would be costly and limited by the constraints of the existing hull. The committee recommends new construction for several reasons. First, the new ship could be designed to incorporate the desired mix of mission capabilities without the constraints of the existing Polar class hull. There are very effective new technologies, particularly new hull designs (such as the double-acting hull), that could offer improvements in efficiency and effectiveness. Rough estimates provided to the committee indicate that the cost of reconstruction (SLEP) would be substantial, perhaps approaching that of new construction. A newly designed ship would also meet more stringent environmental standards than the current ships.
Recommendation 4: National interests in the polarregions require that the United States immediately program, budget, design, and construct two new polar icebreakers to be operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.
TRANSITION TO A NEW POLAR ICEBREAKING FLEET
Even under the best conditions, the new polar icebreakers will not enter service for another 8 to 10 years until the program, budget, design, construction, and test phases are completed. During this time, the United States needs a transition strategy to ensure a minimum level of icebreaker capability. To meet this need, the committee recommends a maintenance upgrade strategy to keep the POLAR SEA mission capable until at least the first new polar ship enters service. The renewal and maintenance costs to keep this ship mission capable are much lower than a service life extension program. The resulting capability, an upgraded POLAR SEA and a fully capable HEALY, is less than this committee believes the nation needs, but it is a cost-effective strategy that emphasizes new construction rather than maintenance of aging ships. The committee also advises that the POLAR STAR continue to be kept in caretaker status, with minimal crew and indefinitely moored at the U.S. Coast Guard pier. If the POLAR SEA has catastrophic problems, the POLAR STAR could be minimally upgraded and brought back into service within a year or so.
This strategy carries some risk, and that risk comes from a decade of inaction. The strategy would permit the United States to locate an icebreaker (POLAR SEA and HEALY) in each polar region as needed. By operating together the two ships could reinforce each other in the most challenging ice