Coast Guard Pleads for Commercial Icebreaker as Timeline for New Polar Cutter Falls Apart

Crew of Coast Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star prepares for training.
The crew of the Coast Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star prepares for training on the ship's Landing Craft Vehicle/Personnel off Antarctica in Jan. 17, 2023. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3 rd Class Aidan Cooney)

Initially, when the Coast Guard awarded a $745 million contract in 2019 for a new heavy icebreaker, the service predicted an accelerated delivery date for the ship, sometime in 2023. An ambitious timeline at best, the estimated date quickly was pushed back to 2024.

Then, in the second year of the pandemic, facing challenges with creating the new design, the delivery estimate slipped to 2025.

Now, after the shipyard contracted to build the Polar Security Cutter, VT Halter Marine Inc. of Pascagoula, Mississippi, was sold to Bollinger Shipyards last November, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan doesn’t know when the much-needed vessel will be ready.

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"I would give you a date if I had one. I don't have a definitive date from my team," Fagan told members of a House Transportation subcommittee during a fiscal 2024 budget hearing Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

With China and Russia increasing their presence in the Arctic, and growing interest worldwide in the Arctic region's vast stores of rare minerals, oil and natural gas, the U.S., an Arctic nation, has a strategic interest in maintaining an ongoing presence in the region as well as maritime operations.

According to Fagan, the country needs "eight to nine" icebreakers in the coming decades for those missions and currently has two -- the 47-year-old heavy icebreaker Polar Star, capable of plying the ice floes of Antarctica, and the 26-year-old medium icebreaker Healy, used for Arctic operations and research.

The Polar Security Cutter program eventually will produce three heavy icebreakers, which typically have the capability to break ice of more than 10 feet and up to 20 feet, and at a minimum, six feet of ice continuously at three knots of speed, with another three medium icebreakers that can handle lesser amounts, expected to be built later. But when that first Polar Security class ship will arrive is now anyone's guess.

The holdup has been with the design. Fagan and her predecessor, Adm. Karl Schultz, both called the design "incredibly complex," especially given that a U.S. shipyard has not constructed a heavy icebreaker since the 1970s.

Fagan said the design work must be advanced before the shipyard can start cutting steel.

"Once we have the detailed design, it will be several years -- three plus -- to get completion on the ship," Fagan said.

To meet the service's needs, the Coast Guard again has asked in its annual budget for $150 million to purchase an available icebreaker and modify it for military use.

The Coast Guard has its eye on the multipurpose offshore vessel Aiviq, a tug supply vessel with icebreaking capabilities owned by Edison Chouest Offshore. Funds had been approved in the service's fiscal 2022 authorization but were stripped at the last minute during congressional budget deliberations.

Fagan said while the Coast Guard had explored the option of leasing icebreakers, it makes more sense in terms of cost and timing to buy an icebreaker and convert it for military use.

"We're excited about what that capability brings to the nation," Fagan said.

Bollinger Shipyards is partially owned by the operators of Edison Chouest Offshore. Bollinger constructed the Coast Guard Sentinel Class fast response cutters, the Coast Guard's 110-foot Island Class patrol boats and the U.S. Navy's Cyclone Class patrol coastals -- the last of which were decommissioned last month.

Edison Chouest operates a fleet of more than 200 commercial vessels as well as several U.S. shipyards.

The Coast Guard requested $13.45 billion for its fiscal 2024 budget, including $1.2 billion to buy or maintain new ships and $115 million to maintain or extend the service lives of the Coast Guard's MH-60T Jayhawk and MH-65 Dolphin helicopter fleet.

It also asked for funding for infrastructure improvements in Alaska, St. Petersburg, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina, and would fund seven new Coast Guard recruiting offices across the country and money to support a proposed 5.2% pay raise for military personnel.

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

Related: Coast Guard's $13.8 Billion Budget Request Includes a Commercial Icebreaker

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