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Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs (2007)

Chapter: 11 Findings and Recommendations

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Suggested Citation:"11 Findings and Recommendations." Transportation Research Board and National Research Council. 2007. Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11753.

Findings and Recommendations

The findings and recommendations of the committee are based on the analysis of written materials it received, testimony from a variety of sources, and its members’ judgment. The committee hopes that its assessment of the nation’s need for polar icebreaking capabilities and the role of the U.S. Coast Guard in polar icebreaking operations will contribute to the nation’s taking needed actions.


The United States has territory and citizens that permanently reside above the Arctic Circle, creating significant national political, security, scientific, and economic interests in the north. An active and influential presence by the U.S. government in this region is necessary to protect and support these interests. Airborne, spaceborne, and submarine assets can only partially address these missions. Asserting a national presence in the Arctic requires assured access to the region, and icebreaker support is the preferred way to access ice-covered boundary areas. Since 1867 when it was called the Revenue Cutter Service and enforced laws and dispensed justice along the northern Alaskan coastline, the U.S. Coast Guard has provided the visible U.S. presence in this region.

The U.S. Coast Guard has the overarching missions of maritime safety, maritime security, national defense, and protection of natural resources in this region where icebreaking capabilities are sometimes required. The Coast Guard, through use of the HEALY and previously the Polar class vessels (last used in 2002 for Arctic operations), is the main federal presence in the ice-covered waters of this region. Although primarily devoted to oceanographic research, the HEALY is available for other missions ranging from national defense, law enforcement, search and rescue, to support of U.S. commerce (shipping, tourism, fishing, and resource exploration). If this ship is tasked to the Antarctic, as it was in 2002-2003, the federal presence in Arctic waters is reduced significantly.

During winter, the entire Alaskan northern coast and a substantial portion of the Alaskan western coast are ice covered. In summer the Arctic sea-ice margin retreats northward, although not uniformly or predictably, usually creating open waters along the entire coastline for several weeks to several months. Summer sea-ice extent is expected to continue to retreat over the next several decades, creating more broken ice along the Alaskan coastline. This may increase the need to break ice of differing thicknesses, requiring an icebreaker that can navigate the thickest ice encountered.

Economic activity appears to be increasing and moving northward as a result of sea ice. These economic activities involve fishing fleets, cruise ships, and increased interests in more northerly natural resource exploitation, specifically mineral mining and petroleum recovery. In addition, the projected increase in Asian energy demand may increase the use of the Northern Sea Route (primarily north of Russia) and the Northwest Passage (primarily north of Canada). Increased Arctic activity implies a greater human presence, which requires increased monitoring of the region.

Environmental change in the Arctic is already causing destabilizing changes for Alaska Natives and indigenous peoples whose lifestyles are heavily reliant on the marine environment of the Arctic region. These people are seeing increased storm surges, an extended open-water season (due to the ice retreat), and enhanced erosion (e.g., at Shishmaref, Alaska) that affects marine life near run-off. The wider variation in sea-ice conditions during the spring and fall marine hunt period maked it difficult to predict weather conditions, making it more risky to determine when to initiate and terminate the hunt, as well as when it is safe to deploy small boats or to hunt further from shore.

Possible U.S. ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and conducting data collection surveys required by Article 76 would require extensive map-

Suggested Citation:"11 Findings and Recommendations." Transportation Research Board and National Research Council. 2007. Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11753.

ping of the U.S. continental shelf off the coast of Alaska, if the United States wishes to use the treaty to extend its economic zones and/or to counter territorial claims by other Arctic nations. Acquisition of the bathymetric, seismic, and coring data necessary to substantiate a U.S. claim requires access to ice-covered waters and specialized scientific equipment, which at present can be provided only by the HEALY.

The potential increase in human activity in northern latitudes will likely increase the demand on the United States to assert a greater, active, and influential presence in the Arctic to not only protect its interests, but also to project its presence as a world power concerned with security, economic, scientific, and international political issues. Routine U.S. Coast Guard patrols in ice-covered waters would contribute to the nation’s presence in the region. To assert U.S. interests in the Arctic, the nation needs to be able to access various sites throughout the region at various times of the year reliably, and at will. While the southern extent of the Arctic ice pack is thinning and becoming less extensive during the summer, there is no question that polar icebreakers will be required for many decades for ingress to much of the Arctic Basin. Ice conditions in the U.S. Arctic are among the most variable and occasionally challenging through the circum-Arctic. National interests require icebreakers that can navigate the most formidable ice conditions encountered in the Arctic.

Recommendation 1: 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.


During the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, the United States committed to significant exploration and scientific study of Antarctica. Since that time, the United States has maintained an active presence in Antarctica to develop and protect its strategic interests related to foreign policy and security, environmental protection, and scientific research. The United States has strong interest in ensuring that the Antarctic continent is preserved exclusively for peaceful purposes, furthering scientific knowledge, and preserving and protecting one of the most pristine environments on the globe. In support of these interests, the United States does not claim territory in Antarctica (although it does maintain the basis for a claim), and it does not recognize the (overlapping) territorial claims made by seven other countries.

Multiple national policy statements and Presidential Decision Directives have reaffirmed the importance of an “active and influential” U.S. presence in Antarctica in support of U.S. leadership in the Antarctic Treaty governance process and as a geopolitical statement of U.S. worldwide interests. Currently, 45 countries have acceded to the Antarctic Treaty and have established research programs. The operation of the treaty is by unanimous consent, and the one country-one vote approach has meant in recent years that the influence of the United States has diminished and its leadership is challenged on a regular basis. However, as the lead proponent of the original treaty, the United States has established an influential presence in Antarctica. The nation has served a critical role in maintaining the integrity of the Antarctic Treaty, fostering an atmosphere of international cooperation and partnership.

The U.S. presence in Antarctica is established principally by the year-round occupation of three stations: McMurdo, Palmer, and South Pole. This presence secures the influential role of the United States in the treaty’s decision-making system and maintains the political and legal balance necessary to protect the U.S. position on Antarctic sovereignty. Many view the permanent year-round presence of the United States as a major deterrent to those countries that might otherwise wish to exercise their territorial claims. The South Pole Station is of particular importance to sovereignty concerns because the South Pole is at the apex of the areas claimed by the seven countries that assert territorial claims. Thus, scientific activity in the Antarctic is an instrument of foreign policy and should be conducted to support that policy.

The U.S. research presence in Antarctica currently relies on shipborne resupply, with the majority of fuel and cargo for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) delivered to McMurdo Station by tanker and container ship. Fuel and supplies are used either in McMurdo or are delivered to South Pole Station and to USAP’s various remote field locations by aircraft or overland traverse vehicles. The amount of fuel and cargo is so large (8,400,000 gallons of fuel [58,600,000 pounds] and 14,200,000 pounds of cargo in 2004-2005) that the only cost-effective means of transport with minimal risk is by ship.

Presently two ice-strengthened ships operated by the Military Sealift Command (MSC) bring in cargo and fuel and remove refuse. These ships require that large icebreaker(s) first open a shipping channel through the shore-fast ice to McMurdo Station, which in recent years has been up to 80 miles long and provide close escort to and from the ice pier. Ice conditions on the final 12 miles of the sea approach are typically challenging due to the presence of thick, multiyear ice. During the past six years, the break-in through McMurdo Sound has become increasingly more challenging. Until 2006, large icebergs in the Ross Sea blocked wind and currents from clearing the ice from McMurdo Sound, and the blockage increased the amount of harder, thicker, multiyear ice in the sound. The last six seasons have generally required two icebreakers to break and groom the channel and to escort transport ships through the channel.

Over the past several years, severe ice conditions in the Ross Sea necessitated two icebreakers to break the channel to McMurdo Station. In 2002-2003, POLAR STAR was not mission capable and the HEALY was diverted on short no-

Suggested Citation:"11 Findings and Recommendations." Transportation Research Board and National Research Council. 2007. Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11753.

tice to assist the POLAR SEA in the McMurdo channel clearing. Use of the HEALY in the Antarctic in 2003 reduced the in-port maintenance time between completion of its extensive 2002 science missions and its redeployment for spring 2003 missions. Due to competing interests for science missions in the western and eastern Arctic, the National Science Foundation (NSF) tasked the NATHANIEL B. PALMER to its first Arctic mission in summer 2003 since the reduced ice that year was suitable for its ice strength. It should be noted that this option would likely not have been possible with the heavy 2006 summer ice, where multiyear ice extended south past Barrow, Alaska, in July.

In 2004-2005, unusually heavy ice conditions again necessitated use of two heavy icebreakers. At this time, the POLAR SEA was in dry dock and not mission capable. The NSF contracted the services of the Russian icebreaker KRASIN, operated by the Far East Shipping Company to assist the POLAR STAR.

Concerned about the reliability of POLAR STAR, NSF hired the KRASIN to break the channel to McMurdo Station for the 2005-2006 resupply mission, and the POLAR STAR remained on “standby” in port in Seattle to assist the KRASIN if needed. The KRASIN attempted the break in alone, but broke a propeller blade (which Navy divers could not repair) before successfully escorting the tanker and container ship through difficult ice conditions. The POLAR STAR was dispatched from standby in Seattle and made a direct 23-day transit to McMurdo Sound. When refueling commenced, McMurdo Station had only five days of fuel remaining.1 These events highlight the difficult ice conditions, the aging condition of the only two U.S. icebreakers powerful enough to perform the McMurdo break-in, and the questionable condition of icebreakers that can be chartered on the open market. These conditions make future resupply missions vulnerable to failure.

With the importance of the U.S. interests in Antarctica and the role that physical presence plays in supporting and protecting those interests, logical questions arise. Is there a better logistics site than McMurdo Station to serve the USAP resupply? Perhaps an alternative site could be found that is not routinely surrounded by thick summer sea ice requiring Polar class icebreaking capabilities for access. Guided by the findings from previous in-depth studies and the committee’s own evaluation, the answer is no. While some alternative locations may provide improved support for certain aircraft, or reduction in required icebreaking, they do not provide both. In addition, these alternate sites do not address other vital U.S. criteria, such as support for South Pole Station or specific science activities.

If McMurdo remains the best choice for the foreseeable future, can resupply be intermittent; that is, if McMurdo Sound ice conditions make break-in too difficult, can resupply be skipped for a year? A National Science Foundation advisory subcommittee answered yes to this question. To make it possible to skip one year of resupply, NSF would have to increase fuel reserve tanks on continent, reduce the logistical dependence of the South Pole Station on McMurdo, and reduce USAP personnel at McMurdo and South Pole when appropriate.

Would preparing to skip one annual resupply materially affect the issues being addressed by this committee? The answer is no. Once resupply has been skipped for a year, it is mandatory in the next year, or skeletal staffing (or abandonment) of McMurdo Station, and perhaps the South Pole Station, may become necessary. The latter alternative is not acceptable. Despite these changes in logistics, the NSF subcommittee concluded that shipborne resupply, supported by icebreakers that can reliably break the required channel into McMurdo Station dock, remains the best mode of logistics for the USAP. Thus, the nation must have icebreaker ships that permit break-in any year it is deemed necessary. This reality requires reliably controlled icebreaker capability that can be ensured over decades. Annual charter—commercial or from another nation—provides insufficient assurance of successful resupply for the long term.

The committee concludes that for the purposes of the single mission of McMurdo resupply, the icebreakers do not necessarily need to be operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, but to best meet mission assurance requirements they should be U.S. flagged, U.S. owned, and U.S. operated. Without specific proposals it is difficult to evaluate the cost-effectiveness or the possibility that other nations might partner to invest in a Polar class icebreaker with the United States.

Ice conditions will be increasingly difficult until a considerable portion of the multiyear ice in the sound is removed by natural processes. For the foreseeable future, two polar icebreakers will be needed to support the resupply mission at an acceptable level of risk. U.S. icebreaking assets must be sized to handle the most difficult ice conditions in McMurdo Sound.

Recommendation 2: 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 icebreaking capability to break a channel into and ensure the maritime resupply of McMurdo Station.


The history of polar research is tied directly to the geopolitical circumstances following World War II and the subsequent Cold War era. In the south this was evidenced by the deployment of nearly 3,000 personnel to Antarctica in the U.S. commitment to the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957-1958. While polar research was seen as important, it also provided a mechanism to project U.S. global


Erick Chiang, National Science Foundation, personal communication, June 1, 2006.

Suggested Citation:"11 Findings and Recommendations." Transportation Research Board and National Research Council. 2007. Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11753.

presence and power in a manner that served U.S. interests. Construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line radars looking toward the former Soviet Union necessitated a year-round presence, creating a need for a better understanding of the Arctic environment and improvement in our ability to work and live in the extreme cold. The establishment of research facilities in Barrow was an outgrowth of political and military necessities of the time.

Fundamental advances resulting from polar research have directly benefited society. Polar research led to the identification of the presence and cause of the “ozone hole,” leading to society’s widespread discontinuance of the use of chlorofluorocarbons. Understanding how both polar regions affect global ocean circulation affects the understanding of climate. The study of Weddell seals, which dive to great depths and cease breathing for long periods, led to better understanding of how such mammals handle gas dissolved in blood during and after deep diving events. This has contributed to advances in understanding sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The study of mammals, insects, and plants that endure freezing temperatures yet prevent the formation of ice crystals in their internal fluids is aiding in the design of freeze-resistant crops and improved biomedical cryopreservation techniques.

The Arctic and Antarctic are natural laboratories whose extreme, relatively pristine environments and geographically unique settings enable research on fundamental phenomena and processes that is not feasible elsewhere. Today, researchers seek better understanding of how new ocean crusts form, how organisms adapt to the extremes of temperature and seasonality (light conditions), how ice sheets behave, and how the solar wind and the earth interact. Unexplored, subglacial lakes in the Antarctic that have been sealed from the atmosphere for millions of years are soon to be sampled. Beneath the South Pole Station, a cubic kilometer of clear ice is being instrumented with 5,000 detectors to observe high-energy neutrinos that may tell us about phenomena such as supernovae. Pristine ice cores that span centuries give direct data about temperature changes and atmospheric gas concentrations.

As global climate has garnered worldwide attention, the polar regions have been found to react acutely to fluctuations in climate and temperatures. The 40 percent reduction in Arctic sea-ice thickness over the past four decades is one of the most dramatic examples of recent changes. Because ice tends to reflect solar radiation and water absorbs it, melting in the polar regions can exert a strong influence on both atmospheric climate and ocean circulation. Huge reservoirs of water are held in massive ice sheets and glaciers; substantive release would create major climate and social dislocations. Thus, research in these regions that play a pivotal role in global Earth systems is of critical importance. Scientists have declared 2007-2008 the International Polar Year. Multinational collaboration and new polar research activities are planned.

The health and continued vitality of polar research are intimately linked to the availability of the appropriate infrastructure and logistical support to allow scientists to work in these harsh environments. Conducting research in the polar regions is as complex and challenging as conducting research in space. Access to the polar regions is essential if the United States is to continue to be a leader in polar science. To operate reliably and safely in these regions necessitates a national icebreaking capability. Icebreakers enable resupply of the land-based stations and field camps in the south. Lack of availability of polar icebreakers has precluded some research in the Southern Ocean where ice is heavy. Access to the central Arctic Basin is essential to a variety of explorations, including some data collection for UNCLOS claim-related interests. While other assets and platforms such as airplanes and spaceborne sensors are useful technological tools, surface ground-truth and in situ sampling cannot be replaced. There are no land sites in the central Arctic. Only an icebreaker can support a research program of sustained scientific measurement. The availability of adequate icebreaking capabilities will be essential to advancing research in the polar regions.

Recommendation 3: The United States should maintain leadership in polar research. This requires icebreaking capability to provide access to the deep Arctic and the ice-covered waters of the Antarctic.


Projecting an active and influential presence in the polar regions requires that the United States be able to access polar sites at various time of the year, reliably and at will. It is the judgment of this committee that this need is only partially fulfilled by airborne, spaceborne, and submarine assets and that a physical surface presence is necessitated by geopolitics. In recent correspondence to the committee, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security further validated that icebreaking capability is necessary to protect national interests in the polar regions. Assured access to the polar regions is therefore a key tenet: The United States needs to maintain a national capability to break heavy, multiyear ice in the northern and southern polar regions. Based on these broad missions, the committee believes that the core of the icebreaking fleet must be the multimission ships operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, a military organization.

Only polar icebreakers can ensure this vital access, reliably and at will. Since the Second World War, the United States has possessed a capable, world class icebreaker fleet that afforded wide access to the polar regions. The current seagoing U.S. fleet of four ships includes three multimission ships operated by the U.S. Coast Guard and one ship, the PALMER, dedicated to scientific research and appropriately operated by the National Science Foundation. One of the three multimission ships, the HEALY, was commissioned in

Suggested Citation:"11 Findings and Recommendations." Transportation Research Board and National Research Council. 2007. Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11753.

1999 and its performance has exceeded design specifications. The HEALY’s operating time is dedicated to the support of Arctic research. While capable of performing many additional U.S. Coast Guard missions including search and rescue, sovereignty, presence, and law enforcement, HEALY cannot operate independently in the ice conditions of the central Arctic and McMurdo Sound. The HEALY was built to complement the Polar class ships.

Now, however, the two most powerful U.S. polar icebreakers are both at the end of their 30-year designed service lives. Over the last decade, no major service life extension program has been planned to extend their operation, and no replacement vessels have programmed. As a consequence, U.S. icebreaking capability is today at risk of being unable to support national interests in the north and the south.

The committee believes that the nation continues to require a fleet that includes a minimum of three multimission ships. This conclusion is consistent with the findings of an earlier study, the 1984 United States Polar Icebreaker Requirements Study (PIRS) conducted by U.S. Coast Guard, Office of Management and Budget, National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of Defense, Maritime Administration, and Department of Transportation. It is also consistent with a 1990 Presidential Report to Congress that reiterated that polar icebreakers were instruments of national policy and presence and that three (multimission) polar icebreakers were necessary to meet the defense, security, sovereignty, economic, and scientific needs of the nation (together with a fourth, dedicated research ship, the PALMER). The committee agrees with the findings of the two previous reports. In addition, the committee notes that icebreaking needs have increased since 1990 and will continue to increase into the foreseeable future. This projected increased demand is a direct effect of a changing climate facilitating increased human presence in the Arctic.

Although the demand for icebreaking capability is predicted to increase, the committee believes that 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 can meet increased requirements while maintaining the number and configuration of the icebreaker fleet the same as today—two Polar class ships, HEALY and PALMER. The demand for icebreaking capability in support of research is also increasing. Today, the National Science Foundation leases the PALMER for research in Antarctic at the ice edge and in light ice. NSF may replace the PALMER in the not too distant future (possibly to acquire more icebreaking capability and thus greater access in the Antarctic), but it will first construct a new ice-strengthened ship, the Alaskan Region Research Vessel, for Arctic research. The icebreaking capabilities of the Alaskan Region Research Vessel will be those of a light icebreaker, for example designed to be able to work safely in young ice and the marginal ice zone. Thus, that ship will not be a “polar icebreaker” in the sense of this report. The committee concluded that the demand of the science community for dedicated research vessels with a variety of icebreaking capabilities will greatly increase in both polar regions. When used in conjunction with the polar icebreakers, research ships will be able to venture into waters that they could not safely transit alone, maximizing the return on the nation’s investment in science and the icebreaking fleet.

One new polar icebreaker is insufficient for several logical reasons. First, a single ship cannot be in more than one location at one time. No matter how technologically advanced or efficiently operated, a single polar icebreaker can be operational (on station) 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 needs to effect periodic crew change-outs. These functions cannot be conducted practically or economically “in the ice” and therefore require transit time to and from polar operating areas. 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 supporting the need for more than a single polar icebreaker is the potential risk of failure in the harsh conditions of polar operations. Icebreakers are the only ships designed to collide regularly with hard objects and to go independently where no other surface vessels can survive. 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. Being forced to operate with 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 assured backup assistance and would allow for more robust operations by the other ship.

From a more strategic, longer-term perspective, two new icebreakers will far better position the nation for the increasing challenges emerging in both polar regions. Building two new icebreakers will ensure maintenance of this level of capability. 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 changes. Other unplanned situations can include search-and-rescue cases, pollution incidents where initial response and U.S. Coast Guard monitoring are necessary, and assistance to ships threatened with grounding or damage by ice. The likelihood of these situations will increase as the number of ice-strengthened tankers, tourist ships, and other vessels in the polar regions grows.

Moreover, a second new ship will leverage the possibilities for simultaneous operations in widely disparate geo-

Suggested Citation:"11 Findings and Recommendations." Transportation Research Board and National Research Council. 2007. Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11753.

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 polar regions require that the United States immediately program, budget, design, and construct two new polar icebreakers to be operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.


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

Suggested Citation:"11 Findings and Recommendations." Transportation Research Board and National Research Council. 2007. Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11753.

conditions, such as on a central Artic mission or in McMurdo Sound. The NSF may have to supplement the POLAR SEA with a commercial or internationally chartered ship when the McMurdo break-in is particularly difficult as is expected in the coming year. For example, an arrangement with Sweden might make the ODEN available. This strategy is not ideal and it carries significant risk, but due to the long lead time for new ships there are no alternatives.

Execution of this transition strategy has already commenced. The POLAR SEA completed sea and ice trials in August 2006 after undergoing repair work at a cost of approximately $30 million. The POLAR SEA should be capable for the 2007 McMurdo break-in but will likely need the assistance of a second ship due to severe ice conditions. These repairs however are not sufficient to sustain the ship long term; they will keep the POLAR SEA in operating condition only for several years.

Keeping the POLAR SEA mission capable to roughly 2015 or so will require another significant round of maintenance and repair of aging shipboard systems. The U.S. Coast Guard should determine the best way to do this work. One strategy is for the POLAR SEA to be taken out of service for a year of shipyard work around 2012, at a cost of roughly $40 million. An alternative maintenance strategy that avoids having the POLAR SEA out of service for a year is to perform the work in year-by-year increments when the ship is in port. Careful planning would be required for the U.S. Coast Guard to determine which upgrade strategy is better. (These issues are discussed in more detail in Chapter 10.) Possibly by 2012, it would be prepared to skip McMurdo resupply for one year, or the NSF might arrange for an alternative icebreaker to perform the break-in during a year that the POLAR SEA is in the shipyard.

If risk reduction is paramount to national needs, maintenance work to return the POLAR STAR to operating condition could be accomplished over the same time period. The committee has developed a time line showing transition alternatives from the current fleet of U.S. Coast Guard and NSF icebreakers to the “new” fleet, from the present through 2020.

Recommendation 5: To provide continuity of U.S. icebreaking capabilities, the POLAR SEA should remain mission capable and the POLAR STAR should remain available for reactivation until the new polar icebreakers enter service.


Both icebreaker operations and maintenance of the polar icebreaker fleet have been underfunded for many years. Deferring long-term maintenance and failing to execute a plan for replacement or refurbishment of the nation’s icebreaking ships have placed national needs in the Arctic and Antarctic at risk. The recent transfer of budget authority for the polar icebreaking program by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from the U.S. Coast Guard to NSF did not address the basic problem of underfunding routine maintenance or providing funds for U.S. Coast Guard nonscience icebreaker missions. The transfer has increased management difficulties by spreading management decisions related to the polar icebreakers across two agencies.

The NSF now has fiscal control over all direct costs associated with the polar icebreaking program, including personnel, training, operation, and maintenance costs. Under a Memorandum of Agreement negotiated between the U.S. Coast Guard and NSF, the U.S. Coast Guard must submit a yearly plan for approval by the NSF. The NSF is now fiscally responsible, and making decisions, for missions outside its core mission and expertise. Without budget authority, the U.S. Coast Guard has been put in a situation in which it has the role of operating a ship for which it does not have full budget and management control.

The committee believes that the total set of U.S. Coast Guard icebreaking missions transcends the mission of support to science, despite the fact that the majority of icebreaker usage at the current time is to support research. The U.S. Coast Guard should have the funds and authority to perform the full range of mission responsibilities in ice-covered waters of the Arctic. There is strong evidence that national need for polar icebreaking in the Arctic will increase over the next several decades. Orders for commercial ice-strengthened tankers will double the worldwide fleet of these vessels. Most are slated to operate in the western Arctic along the Northern Sea Route, but expansion of hydrocarbon development activities to the Alaskan North Slope and Canadian Beaufort Sea is proceeding. With this added human presence, a robust U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreaker fleet will be needed for regular patrols of our coastal waters to increase U.S. presence in international Arctic waters. This will require resumption of regular patrols of coastal waters and an increased U.S. presence in international Arctic waters by the nation’s multimission icebreaker fleet. It is not sufficient to provide funds to only maintain the fleet; it is necessary to provide funds to operate it effectively. The committee strongly believes that management responsibility should be aligned with management accountability.

When NSF, NOAA, or another “user” agency employs a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker to support some directed activity, the user agency should pay only incremental costs associated with direct mission tasking. This arrangement has worked well for decades, although it would be useful for the financial arrangement to be clarified and reasserted by the administration. If the U.S. Coast Guard is funded to operate a vessel, then direct tasking reimbursement would typically include the cost of fuel for extended transit beyond patrol, and on-ship engineering and habitation costs that derive from research activities. The committee distinguishes between direct mission tasking of a science voyage and science of opportunity where scientists or educators are aboard at the

Suggested Citation:"11 Findings and Recommendations." Transportation Research Board and National Research Council. 2007. Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11753.

invitation of the U.S. Coast Guard on voyages planned for Coast Guard patrol missions. The committee encourages the U.S. Coast Guard to invite researchers and educators on planned patrols to conduct science of opportunity. Only direct tasking should result in reimbursement to the U.S. Coast Guard above its congressionally appropriated operational funds.

Recommendation 6: The U.S. Coast Guard should be provided sufficient operations and maintenance budget to support an increased, regular, and influential presence in the Arctic. Other agencies should reimburse incremental costs associated with directed mission tasking.


The U.S. need for polar icebreaking has been studied several times over the past two decades. This committee has reviewed these studies and believes the essential conclusions remain the same. As a nation with citizens in the Arctic and a significant, continuing investment in the Antarctic, the United States has a clear obligation to assure the welfare of these citizens and to protect its interests in the polar regions. The polar icebreaker fleet has been described as a national asset that is capable of meeting multiple missions. The committee concurs with previous studies and strongly supports renewal of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability.

The last declaration of presidential-level policy regarding the U.S. requirements for polar icebreaking was a Presidential Report to Congress in 1990. While recognizing the national need for polar icebreaker operations, that report does not adequately address current and future issues.

Immediate policy action is needed for several reasons: wholesale ship obsolescence in the fleet; lack of adequate U.S. Coast Guard capability in the Arctic; increased human presence and economic activity in the Arctic region; and threats to Native Alaskan communities due to accelerating environmental changes. Clear direction for sustaining these capabilities needs to be asserted to ensure that the United States does not find itself without adequate polar icebreaking capability in the future as it has in the past and as it does today. If the multimission ships are to be used most effectively as a national asset, then the agency with the core mission to support the polar icebreaking needs of the nation— the U.S. Coast Guard—must have adequate budgetary authority and operational control of these ships. The committee has reviewed laws and statutory authorities related to U.S. polar icebreaking and finds these to be adequate. There is a need, however, for policy clarification within the Executive Branch. The U.S. Coast Guard operational mission in the ice-covered waters of the Arctic needs to be reaffirmed.

Recommendation 7: Polar icebreakers are essential instruments of U.S. national policy in the changing polar regions. To ensure adequate national icebreaking capability into the future, a Presidential Decision Directive, should be issued to clearly align agency responsibilities and budgetary authorities.

Suggested Citation:"11 Findings and Recommendations." Transportation Research Board and National Research Council. 2007. Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11753.
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