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Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs
to be reanalyzed and reconsidered, and ultimately, in 1980, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) rejected the proposed budget request for a new icebreaker. Study followed study until 1983 when the Coast Guard organized a Polar Icebreaker Requirements Study (PIRS), which was unique in that it involved other federal agencies for the first time. The other agencies included the Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, and Maritime Administration, all of which were utilizing the services of the existing fleet. In the same year, OMB directed that all icebreaker costs be fully reimbursable, and a complex scheme of fixed costs to be reimbursed to the Coast Guard was developed along with actual expenses incurred in polar regions. Ultimately the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of Transportation, and OMB joined the PIRS study group. The final 400-page report stated that there were “no satisfactory alternatives to take the place of polar icebreaking services.” A summary of the PIRS findings follows.
In studying icebreaker funding, PIRS reviewed the full reimbursement system in detail. While recognizing the theoretical advantages of incorporating full icebreaker costs in the budgets of user agency programs, the PIRS report also reflected the general discontent with reimbursement. The report cited the following disadvantages:
Increased difficulty in managing an icebreaker fleet, when unexpected perturbations in agency budgets can eliminate large amounts of funding with little notice,
Inefficient utilization due to the rigid allocation of icebreaker days,
Difficulty in providing support for other than the designated users, and
Potential for reduction in the icebreaker fleet due to distorted reimbursement incentives.
The impact of reimbursement was felt even before completion of the PIRS report. The $5.3 million transferred to the Maritime Administration (MARAD) bloated the small agency’s research and development budget substantially. When the 1984 budget reduced MARAD’s R&D appropriation to its traditional level, MARAD redirected its icebreaker funding to its other traditional programs. The Coast Guard was left without funding for one of the five ships.
PIRS also assessed funding acquisition costs under shared arrangements with other agencies and with industry without discovering any attractive alternatives. After making estimates of operating and capital costs, PIRS concluded that an icebreaker fleet is essential to the national interest and should be operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. The report’s significant recommendations include the following:
The Coast Guard should maintain a fleet of four icebreakers to meet the projected requirements. In a minority opinion the Coast Guard argued that a fifth icebreaker should remain “in reserve” due to the age of the ships and a possible increase in requirements.
Design of a new icebreaker should start immediately, emphasizing research as well as escort and logistics capabilities, and should reflect the needs of both primary and secondary users. Icebreaking capability should be between that of the Wind and Polar classes.
Capital cost of replacement icebreakers should be funded by the Coast Guard.
Reimbursement should be reexamined and a joint recommendation for change pursued through the budget process.
Scientific capabilities of the Polar class icebreakers should be improved.
Based on the PIRS, the U.S. Coast Guard began consulting with other agencies concerning requirements for a future icebreaker design. At the same time, three of the existing ships were experiencing increased wear and tear and the Coast Guard had funds to operate only four, not five, ships. Consequently, WESTWIND was placed in layup with a small caretaker crew. By 1986, Coast Guard engineers were expressing concerns about the structural integrity of the GLACIER. Because 21 to 28 percent of her hull plating had been lost to corrosion, much of her hull framing and some 20 percent of structural decks and bulkheads were deemed inadequate. Emergency repairs permitted her to sail on the 1986-1987 Antarctic mission, but she was operationally restricted to “limited ice transit.” The cost of a full refurbishment, coupled with her manpower-intensive configuration and high operating costs, led the commandant to decommission her in 1987. This left the nation with four icebreakers.
Bringing WESTWIND back into service proved more challenging than expected, and NORTHWIND too began to falter. Engine problems forced her to miss resupply operations in Greenland in 1987, and with the lack of a backup, the commandant was forced to request Canadian assistance. This led to the decommissioning of WESTWIND in 1988 and NORTHWIND in 1989, leaving the United States with only two heavy icebreakers.
THE PRESENT FLEET OF U.S. ICEBREAKERS
Even as the old fleet was in rapid decline, but not yet lost, there was a strong sense that new icebreakers were needed. The PIRS report was one of the indicators, and the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1984 stated:
It is the sense of the Congress that the United States has important security, economic, and environmental interests in developing and maintaining a fleet of icebreaking vessels capable of operating effectively and independently in the heavy ice regions of the Arctic and the Antarctic. The Secretary of the Department in which the Coast Guard is operating shall prepare design and construction plans for the purchase of at least two polar icebreaking vessels to be opera-