The Annual McMurdo Break-In
For the past two Antarctic summer seasons (2004-2005 and 2005-2006), unusually heavy ice conditions necessitated use of two heavy icebreakers for the McMurdo break-in. During both operations, the POLAR SEA was in dry dock and was not mission capable. NSF was forced to contract for the services of the Russian icebreaker KRASIN, operated by the Far East Shipping Company (FESCO). During Operation Deep Freeze 2004-2005, the POLAR STAR was assisted by the KRASIN; during the 2005-2006 break-in, the KRASIN was hired to break the channel to McMurdo Station and the POLAR STAR was on “standby” in port in Seattle to assist the KRASIN if needed. During the 2005-2006 mission, the KRASIN lost a propeller blade, and the POLAR STAR was sent to help with the resupply. The POLAR STAR arrived in McMurdo Sound after a rapid, 23-day transit; however, NSF decided it was not necessary to utilize the POLAR STAR to assist in the resupply because the KRASIN was able to escort the tanker and cargo ship to the pier. At the conclusion of the break-in, the POLAR STAR returned to Seattle and was put in “caretaker” status with the crew reduced from approximately 135 to 34.
The POLAR STAR will remain in this state indefinitely until a budget decision can be made to either repair it or possibly decommission it. Meanwhile, POLAR SEA has received the minimum repairs required to make it mission capable to support Operation Deep Freeze 2006-2007. Hiring the KRASIN to assist with the McMurdo break-in is not an option in the near future because this ship has been chartered for the next several years by private companies to work in the Arctic. Although NSF is currently investigating options to provide a secondary icebreaker to assist the POLAR SEA for Operation Deep Freeze 2006-2007, in the near future the U.S. polar icebreaker fleet will consist of only two ships in active duty, the HEALY and the POLAR SEA. Due to the aging core systems, a regular and fully funded repair and maintenance schedule would keep the Polar class ships mission capable for only several more years, although this may provide a bridge to a long-term solution.
The decrease in summer Arctic sea-ice extent implies heretofore unanticipated increases in commerce, military operations, and transit in the Arctic via the Northwest Passage (north of Canada) and the Northern Sea Route (north of Russia). These activities can be expected to increase demand for access and support operations required by treaties, laws, and U.S. policies. For example, Articles 211 and 234 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) clearly state the national rules to prevent pollution from vessels and outline special rules for vessels operating in ice-covered water, respectively. These rules will have to be enforced in the Arctic. Further, it is reasonable to expect that the support of U.S. interests in the polar regions under these changing environmental conditions, especially with potential increases in strategic and commercial endeavors in the Arctic, will affect future demands for icebreaker services (see “The U.S. Arctic Presence” in Chapter 2, and “Arctic Environmental Change and Potential Challenges” in Chapter 3 for a discussion of the evidence for and indicators of these potential trends.).
Since 1965, the U.S. Coast Guard has been the sole federal agency responsible for providing national polar icebreaking capabilities. Its missions include law enforcement, marine pollution response, search and rescue, providing a U.S. presence, defense operations, and other unique missions, including diplomatic treaty activities, support for the Department of Defense, and scientific research. Although U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers do not perform all of these missions with great frequency in the polar regions, whenever and wherever a U.S. Coast Guard ship is operating, it is available to perform one or more of these other missions as the situation requires.
Budget base transfers in the 1970s and 1980s placed annual funding resources in the budgets of agencies with programs benefiting from icebreaker support in that era, including the Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, and Maritime Administration. Memoranda of Agreement (MOAs) implemented these budget transfers to the U.S. Coast Guard by providing for incremental reimbursement of deployment-related expenses (primarily fuel and other consumables) back to the U.S. Coast Guard. Although the U.S. Coast Guard retained a budget base for icebreaker crews, maintenance, training, and other support to ensure that ships were ready for operations, it did not have budget authority to specifically deploy icebreakers in support of U.S. Coast Guard mission responsibilities. Changes in programs and levels of user agency funding resulted in the decommissioning of older icebreakers in the late 1980s, and some changes were made in the reimbursement formula, but the general concept of agencies “buying” operational icebreaker days continued until 2005.
In preparing the President’s budget for fiscal year