The estimated cost of a new Coast Guard icebreaker is significant, but the need is urgent given the state of the only heavy icebreaker currently in service, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said last week.
"This is going to be a world-class Polar icebreaker; high horsepower, the ability to drive through, you know, six, seven feet of ice at three knots continuous," Schultz said March 28 in testimony before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.
Schultz said the first of three planned icebreakers, called Polar Security Cutters, was now estimated to cost between $925 and $940 million.
Additional money for the new icebreaker was also available from previous appropriations, he said. He said he expected a contract award as soon as April or May.
Under questioning from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, chair of the subcommittee, Schultz said he expected the cost of the additional two heavy icebreakers to come down to about $700 million.
"We anticipate a significant decrease for [icebreaker] hulls two and three," Schultz said.
During its recently completed 105-day Antarctic patrol, the crew of the 43-year-old Polar Star "worked miracles" in combating a major shipboard fire, numerous electrical outages, and engine room flooding, Schultz said.
In addition, just off the Antarctic ice shelf, Coast Guard and Navy divers "went into the frigid Antarctic ocean to effect repairs to a shaft seal," he added.
The problems maintaining an aging workhorse ship such as the Polar Star demonstrated that "we're only one major casualty away from being a nation without any heavy icebreaking capability," Schultz said. "New icebreakers cannot come fast enough."
Currently, the only U.S. icebreaker for the Arctic region is the Coast Guard's 20-year-old medium icebreaker Healy. The Coast Guard is seeking a total of six new icebreakers -- three heavy and three medium, Schultz said.
In the agreement that ended the 35-day partial government shutdown in February, Congress and the White House allotted $655 million to award a contract for a new Polar Security Cutter.
"This is big, this is real, this is the largest single financial contribution to execution of our nation's Arctic strategy," Sen Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said at the time.
Before the legislation passed on the $655 million, funding for the new icebreaker had been at risk of being diverted to build the southern border wall.
The legislation had in it "tucked away where no one can get to it a little pot of money, $655 million, to construct the first ever -- first ever -- Polar Security Cutter, and money to start construction on a second one," Murkowski said at the annual Armed Services YMCA Alaska's Salute to the Military in Anchorage.
In a statement in February, the Coast Guard said "With the support of the administration and Congress, we plan to build a new fleet of six polar icebreakers -- at least three of which must be heavy icebreakers -- and we need the first new Polar Security Cutter immediately to meet America's needs in the Arctic."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.