For the First Time in 26 Years, a US Polar Icebreaker Is Headed to the Arctic on a National Security Mission

The Coast Guard Ice Breaker Polar Star working an ice channel.
The Coast Guard Ice Breaker Polar Star working the ice channel near McMurdo, Antarctica, Jan. 10, 2001. (U.S. Coast Guard/Rob Rothway)

And then there was one.

The Coast Guard cutter Polar Star -- the service's only running long-range icebreaker -- will head to the Arctic this year, in the polar opposite direction of its regular annual deployment to Antarctica.

With the ocean resupply at McMurdo Station in Antarctica canceled this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Coast Guard plans to send the heavy icebreaker Polar Star northward to the Arctic region, according to a release issued by the service Thursday.

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The ship's mission will be to help "protect the nation's maritime sovereignty and security in the region," the release states.

"The Arctic is no longer an emerging frontier, but is instead a region of growing national importance," said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area commander. "The Coast Guard is committed to protecting U.S. sovereignty and working with our partners to uphold a safe, secure, and rules-based Arctic."

It will be the first deployment of a U.S. Polar-class icebreaker to the Arctic on a non-science mission since August 1994, when the heavy icebreaker Polar Sea, now inactive, became one of the first two American surface ships to reach the North Pole.

In 1998, Polar Star spent three months in the region on a science mission. And in 2009, the Polar Sea conducted a three-month Arctic deployment, also dedicated solely to science.

This unusual wintertime deployment, however, will focus primarily on national security and projecting maritime sovereignty.

Polar Star conducted sea trials just north of Alaska in 2013 following more than three years undergoing a $57 million overhaul.

With the largest Arctic nation, Russia, expanding its influence in the region and China seeking to exert its own presence and economic efforts in the Arctic, the U.S. has been seeking to ensure that it retains its authority there.

The Coast Guard released its Arctic Strategic Outlook in April 2019, and the Air Force and Space Force unveiled the Department of the Air Force Arctic Strategy this year, outlining its role and goals for the region.

But displaying presence has proved challenging for the Coast Guard in the past several years, with the service's tiny fleet of icebreakers suffering losses and new ships still a few years away.

This summer, the medium icebreaker Healy Coast Guard suffered a crippling fire in one of its main propulsion motors, leaving it and the starboard shaft inoperable. The vessel, which was on its way to the Arctic for a deployment through at least October, returned to its homeport in Washington under its own power but needed a replacement engine.

The Polar Star, commissioned in 1976, has had its own share of woes, experiencing an engine fire while participating in Operation Deep Freeze last year. The blaze damaged the ship's garbage incinerator housing and the response caused damage to its electrical system.

It needed relatively few repairs in dry dock following Operation Deep Freeze 2020, however, and will leave for the Arctic in early December, according to Coast Guard Pacific Area spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Brickey.

McMurdo Station, managed by the National Science Foundation, will be resupplied this year via aircraft.

The Navy and Coast Guard awarded a $749.5 million contract to VT Halter Marine of Pascagoula, Mississippi, for the first of three new heavy icebreakers, known as Polar Security Cutters. Construction is expected to begin next year.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Polar Sea and Polar Star have made science-related trips to the Arctic since 1994.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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