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Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs
ture and logistical support to allow scientists to work in these natural laboratories whose unique settings enable research on fundamental phenomena and processes that are feasible nowhere else. Access to the polar regions, predicated on the availability of adequate icebreaking capability, is essential if the United States is to continue as a leader in polar science.
RENEWAL OF THE NATION’S POLAR ICEBREAKINGFLEET
Based on the current and future needs for icebreaking capabilities, the committee concludes that the nation continues to require a polar icebreaking fleet that includes a minimum of three multimission ships and one single-mission ship. The committee finds that although the demand for icebreaking capability is predicted to increase, a fleet of three multimission and one single-mission icebreakers can meet the nation’s future polar icebreaking needs through the application of the latest technology, creative crewing models, wise management of ice conditions, and more efficient use of the icebreaker fleet and other assets. The nation should immediately begin to program, design, and construct two new polar icebreakers to replace the POLAR STAR and POLAR SEA.
Building only one new polar icebreaker is insufficient for several reasons. First, a single ship cannot be in more than one location at a time. No matter how technologically advanced or efficiently operated, a single polar icebreaker can operate in the polar regions for only a portion of any year. An icebreaker requires regular maintenance and technical support from shipyards and industrial facilities, must reprovision regularly, and has to effect periodic crew change-outs. A single icebreaker, therefore, could not meet any reasonable standard of active and influential presence and reliable, at-will access throughout the polar regions.
A second consideration is the potential risk of failure in the harsh conditions of polar operations. Despite their intrinsic robustness, damage and system failure are always a risk and the U.S. fleet must have enough depth to provide backup assistance. Having only a single icebreaker would necessarily require the ship to accept a more conservative operating profile, avoiding more challenging ice conditions because reliable assistance would not be available. A second capable icebreaker, either operating elsewhere or in homeport, would provide ensured backup assistance and allow for more robust operations by the other ship.
From a strategic, longer-term perspective, two new Polar class icebreakers will far better position the nation for the increasing challenges emerging in both polar regions. A second new ship would allow the U.S. Coast Guard to reestablish an active patrol presence in U.S. waters north of Alaska to meet statutory responsibilities that will inevitably derive from increased human activity, economic development, and environmental change. It would allow response to emergencies such as search-and-rescue cases, pollution incidents, and assistance to ships threatened with grounding or damage by ice. Moreover, a second new ship will leverage the possibilities for simultaneous operations in widely disparate geographic areas (e.g., concurrent operations in the Arctic and Antarctic), provide more flexibility for conducting Antarctic logistics (as either the primary or the secondary ship for the McMurdo break-in), allow safer multiple-ship operations in the most demanding ice conditions, 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.
Given the length of time needed to program, budget, design, construct, and test a new ship, it is expected that the new polar icebreakers will not enter service for another 8 to 10 years. During this time the nation needs a transition strategy to ensure a minimum level of icebreaker capability. A continuing maintenance and repair program for the POLAR SEA, building on the work recently completed, is needed to keep it mission capable until at least the first new polar ship enters service. The cost to keep the POLAR SEA mission capable will be much less than a full service life extension program. The resulting capability, an upgraded POLAR SEA together with a fully capable HEALY, is less than the nation needs, but a cost-effective strategy should emphasize new construction rather than maintenance of aging ships. The committee also advises that the POLAR STAR continue to be kept in caretaker status, indefinitely moored at the U.S. Coast Guard pier. If the POLAR SEA has catastrophic problems, the POLAR STAR could be reactivated and brought back into service. The nation may need to charter supplemental ship services during the transition to new ships. This transition strategy carries risk, but due to the long lead time for new ships there are no alternatives.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The committee finds that both operations and maintenance of the polar icebreaker fleet have been underfunded for many years, and the capabilities of the nation’s icebreaking fleet have diminished substantially. Deferred long-term maintenance and failure to execute a plan for replacement or refurbishment of the nation’s icebreaking ships have placed national interests in the polar regions at risk. The nation needs the capability to operate in both polar regions reliably and at will. Specifically, the committee recommends the following:
The United States should continue to project an active and influential presence in the Arctic to support its interests. This requires U.S. government polar icebreaking capability to ensure year-round access throughout the region.
The United States should continue to project an active and influential presence in the Antarctic to support its interests. The nation should reliably control sufficient