Delivery Of The U.S. Coast Guard’s New Heavy Icebreaker Has Been Delayed Yet Again
The U.S. Coast Guard’s only operational heavy icebreaker might not have a replacement by the time it needs to retire, even after a major overhaul.
The U.S. Coast Guard has quietly pushed back when it expects to receive its first new heavy icebreaker, also known as the Polar Security Cutter, or PSC, from 2024 to 2025. This raises questions about whether the ship will be ready before the USCGC Polar Star, the only operational heavy icebreaker the service has now, reaches the end of its viable service life, even after a planned major overhaul. The Coast Guard's overall icebreaking capacity has become an increasingly pressing national security issue in recent years in large part due to the growing strategic significance of the Arctic region and the potential for conflict there.
It's unclear when the PSC delivery schedule got delayed. A review of archived copies of the Coast Guard's official website for the program shows that the date was updated there sometime between Sept. 27 and Sept. 29. Admiral Karl Schultz, Commandant of the Coast Guard, had not included a projected date of any kind for when he expected the first of these to be delivered in his prepared remarks at a hearing on the readiness of his service in April. The year before, he had said that the first of these icebreakers could potentially be ready in 2023.
The U.S. Navy, which is managing the program together with the Coast Guard, awarded the first contract for the lead PSC to VT Halter Marine in 2019, at which time the goal was to take delivery of the ship in 2024. This was already a one-year delay in the original timeline, which envisioned the arrival of three PSCs in 2023, 2025, and 2026, respectively. There were at that time and continue to be "financial incentives for earlier delivery" included in that deal, according to the Navy and the Coast Guard.
There were already hints of a new delay earlier this year, based on the apparent slipping in the schedule for when the first steel would be cut for the ship. That milestone marks the very start of the actual construction of a vessel. As of this week, however, the first PSC is "still in the design phase" and VT Halter Marine “is working toward completing the necessary work to begin construction," according to a statement that the Coast Guard gave to ArcticToday. That outlet was among the first to note that the service had started saying 2025, rather than 2024, was now the expected delivery date.
It's unclear what issue or issues may have been responsible for the new delay. The Coast Guard and the Navy had sought to keep costs and schedule risk low by considering PSCs based on relatively mature parent designs. VT Halter Marine's offer was derived from a planned ship, the Polarstern II, a planned ice-capable research vessel for the German government. However, that program was thrown into uncertainty last year, with German authorities canceling the tender over legal issues.
"To what degree was Polarstern II’s design developed at the time it was used as the parent design for developing the PSC design? How much of Polarstern II’s detail design and construction plan was completed at that time?" the Congressional Research Service posed as potential questions for American legislators to consider in its latest report on the PSC program, released in October, which did not include any mention of the latest delay. "How closely related is the PSC’s design to Polarstern II’s design? How many changes were made to Polarstern II’s design to develop the PSC design? What were these changes, and what technical, schedule, and cost risks, if any, might arise from them?"
It was reported in January that VT Halter Marine was still getting things ready to begin construction of the first PSC. It is set to be one of the heaviest ships that its yard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, has ever built, which has required new infrastructure capable of handling that weight.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a Congressional watchdog, had raised concerns about the potential for delays in the PSC program, including simply as a result of the general complexities of shipbuilding, in its own report back in 2018. GAO had also warned that any such schedule slips would raise the risk of the Coast Guard being left without any operational heavy icebreakers. At that time, USCGC Polar Star was set to be retired in 2020 absent plans for a major life-extension effort.
In January, the Coast Guard announced it had awarded a contract, worth up to $119.6 million, to Mare Island Dry Dock, LLC, of Vallejo, California, to conduct a Sevice Life Extension Program (SLEP) overhaul of the Polar Star. The expectation, based on requirements Congress set in the annual defense policy bill, or National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for the 2021 Fiscal Year, is that this will keep the ship in service through at least the end of 2025.
The issue here is that Polar Star, which first entered service in 1976 and has become very hard to operate and maintain, will still have to be out of service for at least some amount of time while the SLEP work is performed and there is no heavy icebreaker to take its place. Her sister ship, USCGC Polar Sea, remains in inventory, but has not been operational since 2010 and is nothing more than a source of spare parts today. The Coast Guard does also have a single medium icebreaker, the USCGC Healy, but it has more limited capabilities compared to the Polar Star.
Another Coast Guard icebreaker, USCGC Mackinaw, is limited to operations on the Great Lakes and is not included in the service's own accounting of "major icebreakers" in service around the world. Various agencies elsewhere within the U.S. government have utilized contractor-owned and operated ice-capable ships in the past, as well.
"By replacing obsolete, unsupportable, or maintenance-intensive equipment, the Coast Guard will mitigate the risk of lost operational days due to unplanned maintenance or system failures," the service said when it announced the SLEP contract earlier this year. "The contracted SLEP work items and recurring maintenance will take place within a five-year, annually phased production schedule running from 2021 through 2025. Each phase will be coordinated so that operational commitments such as Operation Deep Freeze will still be met."
Operation Deep Freeze is the nickname for U.S. military support for U.S. government activities in Antarctica.
In June 2020, then-President Donald Trump ordered the Coast Guard to explore the possibility of buying nuclear-powered icebreakers, a type of ship that only Russia currently operates. The next month, Trump suggested there were new plans to acquire 10 additional icebreakers from an unspecified source. Whether or not that was true, nothing has emerged since then to indicate that anyone seriously pursued such a proposal.
The video below shows the Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika, which is currently the largest icebreaker of any kind in the world.
The United States was already in desperate need of new icebreakers two years ago when VT Halter Marine got the contract for the first PSC. That demand is likely to grow in the coming years. Increased military, as well as commercial competition in the highly strategic Arctic region alone will increase requirements for icebreaking support.
For years now, receding ice in the Arctic due to global climate change has opened up new potential shipping routes, as well as access to resources that could be exploited, ranging from oil to fish. This in turn has prompted concerns that subsequent competition in the region could lead to conflict.
Many other Arctic nations, even ones smaller than the United States, operate larger fleets of icebreakers. Russia, in particular, has dozens of icebreakers in service now and is in the process of expanding and modernizing its ice-capable fleets, including the addition of new nuclear-powered and missile-armed types.
Russia is in the process of a dramatic expansion of its overall presence in this region. This could ultimately include the establishment of a network of new anti-access and area-denial capabilities in the High North.
Right now, it should still hopefully be possible for the Coast Guard to get its first PSC before the USCGC Polar Star needs to be retired. However, if the delivery schedule gets pushed back any further, the service could find itself without any heavy icebreakers at a time when it already needs more capacity in this regard.
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