President Obama is expected to propose Tuesday the expansion of the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet, including the acceleration of construction on one ship already in the works and new planning for others in the future. It’s an ambitious effort with a major financial commitment, considering each ship in the highly specialized fleet has a price tag of about $1 billion.
The plan was disclosed in a fact sheet released by the White House to outline a series of new investments and security measures the United States has planned in the Arctic region. Climate change, the White House said, has changed the game in the polar region, opening up more waterways as arctic sea ice melts. So have increasingly frosty foreign relations with Russia: The United States currently has two working icebreakers, while Moscow has 40 with 11 more planned, the White House noted.
The plan comes during an ongoing land grab in the Arctic, and as experts in national security, transportation and the sciences worry that the United States is falling behind its competition for transit routes and natural resources.
The Coast Guard has been calling for more funding for icebreakers for years. Presently, the United States has one working heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, and one medium one, the Healy. A second heavy icebreaker, the Polar Sea, has not been used since its engine failed in 2010, and is sitting in a drydock in Seattle.
“We need icebreakers up [in the Arctic], and right now our icebreakers are in a sorry state,” then-Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp said in an October 2010 interview with the independent Navy Times. “They need replacement or very thorough renovation to allow the United States to sustain an active presence and support our sovereignty up there.”
In 2010, an independent analysis commissioned by the service found that the Coast Guard needed at least three heavy and three medium icebreakers to meet its legal requirements, and at least four heavy and six medium icebreakers to meet both the legal requirements and the Navy’s planned operating concept at the time.
A subsequent 2013 study known as the High Latitude Mission Analysis Report found that the Coast Guard needs to expand its icebreaking capability to include three heavy and three ships to adequately meet its requirements, according to a July report by the Congressional Research Service.
The three existing Coast Guard icebreakers are all considered multi-mission ships. The Polar Star and the laid-up Polar Sea were built in the 1970s, and are each 399 feet long and 13,200 tons. They can break ice up to six feet thick. The 420-foot Healy, commissioned in 2000, can break ice up to 4 1/2 feet thick, and is used primarily for scientific research in the Arctic.
A fourth U.S. icebreaker, the Nathaniel B. Palmer, is privately owned by Offshore Service Vessels LLC in Louisiana and is chartered by the National Science Foundation. It can break ice up to three feet thick, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The ships are expensive in part because of the powerful engines and protection their hulls need from the ice, as explained in a 2013 story by National Defense Magazine. As the ship is propelled forward, it slides up onto the ice, and the weight of the hull breaks it. Doing so requires protecting the rudders, propellers and propulsion units from damage, the story noted.