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Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs
summarized in Table 10.1. Combining one option from each dimension describes the acquisition and the operation of one ship. “Ownership” was found to be the dominant dimension, partly because it determines much about funding vehicles, crewing, and operation of the ships. First, the crewing and the procurement options are discussed. Later, ownership options are evaluated (related to a single ship) against each of the four identified gaps. Then (multiship) fleet constitution is considered.
Crewing options are heavily driven by the vessel’s ownership. For example, a foreign government-owned icebreaker crew would be selected and trained by the foreign government. A commercial operator would flag the ship and hire the crew. Commercial lease terms can require the ship to be U.S. flagged and the crew to be from the United States. Government-owned vessels can be crewed by either the U.S. Coast Guard or civilian mariners hired by the U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC), and through different crewing schedules and modernized technologies, crew sizes may be reduced, thereby reducing costs. Alternative crew sizing options are discussed in detail later in this chapter. Briefly, a civilian crew may number much less than a U.S. Coast Guard crew; however, market conditions indicate that for each U.S. Coast Guard crewmember, the commercial operator (or MSC) would need to hire two mariners. Committee estimates show that total crewing costs are not appreciably different— no more than 10-15 percent in lifetime operational costs.
The scientific community has long and successful experience with civilian crews (i.e., on the PALMER and GOULD), including the advantages attendant on long-term retention of officers and crew with experience. The success of the U.S. Coast Guard Arctic marine science support with the HEALY demonstrates that this option—where crewmembers rotate more frequently—can be satisfactory as well.
In considering vessel procurement, ownership decisions admit or preclude some procurement options. The desired duration of vessel service life is another important influence. One option is a service life extension program (SLEP). As discussed in detail in Chapter 6, the life of the hull and basic structure of a ship is extended by replacing the mechanical, electrical, propulsion, waste, and other systems and likely rebuilding the spaces and, of course, reoutfitting them. The lifetime of the refitted (SLEP) ship will likely be less than that of a new ship. Incorporation of new technologies may be limited, and no new hull design is possible. The U.S. government could “SLEP” either the POLAR SEA or the POLAR STAR. A commercial company could buy an existing hull and do the same. There do not appear to be any Polar class icebreaker hulls on the market. It is also possible that a U.S. Polar class ship could be transferred to commercial ownership and then undergo a service life extension. Mariners on the committee advise, however, that a ship with life extension may be mission capable only about half as long as a newly constructed ship.
New construction—whether by the U.S. government or by a commercial company—is an option that would allow the incorporation of new technology. Chapter 6 discusses the many new, attractive, and high-performance technologies available, including the double-acting hull design.
The option of “enhanced short-term maintenance” is being exercised. In 2006, the POLAR SEA was in dry dock and interim maintenance was performed so that the ship would be mission capable for the short term (i.e., three to five years. It is the POLAR SEA that will do the 2007 McMurdo break-in, likely with assistance. This maintenance of the POLAR SEA is crucial to having polar icebreaker capability for the next several years while the nation takes action for the long term, should it choose to do so.
In the following material, the committee considers the ownership dimension with respect to each of the three identified gaps.
Assured Access to Ice-Covered Seas Independent ofIce Conditions
A basic tenet of national security, homeland security, and projection of U.S. power worldwide is assured access to all regions of the globe. In the polar regions this is manifested in a need to be able to place U.S. assets in all ice-covered waters. It is the judgment of the committee that this need can be only fulfilled partially by airborne, spaceborne, and submarine assets and that a physical surface presence is necessitated by geopolitics. The nation needs to maintain a national capability to break heavy multiyear ice in the polar regions.
The highest-priority need in the south is to support annual resupply of McMurdo Station, the hub and lifeline of U.S. operations in Antarctica. A corollary benefit could be the provision of scientific access to the ice-covered waters of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean if the ship is outfitted to support scientific research, but this is not a primary driver in justifying such capabilities. The committee reiterates that the solution could be a U.S. government ship or a long-term leased vessel, but the solution must be long term.
In the north, the need for access is multifaceted and spans many national interests including defense, economic development, scientific research, and environmental protection. The committee concluded that national interests in the north were inadequately met by the current icebreaker fleet and that the growing national interests in the north would increase the need for such capabilities in the foreseeable future. The committee also concluded that current U.S. Coast Guard activities were insufficient to achieve its missions in the Arctic and that this was due to insufficient funding for operations, rather than a lack of urgency. The U.S. Coast Guard has ceased regular patrols in the Arctic. The committee believes that changes in the Arctic necessitate reinstatement of these patrols. The current status of icebreaking assets, however, compromises the national ability to be responsive to these needs.