US at Risk of Losing Heavy Polar Icebreaking Capability
“The nation is at risk of losing its heavy polar icebreaking capability—experiencing a critical capacity gap.”
So concluded a recent report from the United States Coast Guard.
The US currently operates a single heavy icebreaker—the Polar Star—but that vessel is approaching the end of its extended service life, estimated at three to seven years.
Icebreaking has emerged as an important capability not only for national security but also potentially for commercial shipping. As Arctic ice continues to melt, thanks to climate change, northern routes are becoming more viable as year-round shipping lanes. Shipping over the Arctic will save time, money, and fuel on several routes between the eastern and western hemispheres.
Russia has embarked on major program in the Arctic, building up its icebreaking capabilities and claiming swaths of the polar north as sovereign territory. China, too, although not an Arctic nation, has also begun to invest in icebreakers.
The Polar Star, built in 1976, has already outlined its 30-year life span. “Its reliability will continue to decline,” noted the USCG report, “and its maintenance costs will continue to escalate.” The ship was refurbished five years ago, but its useful life is still estimated to end between 2020 and 2024.
The Coast Guard report concluded that the US currently has insufficient assets to protect its interests in the Arctic. It recommended that Congress fund the construction of four polar icebreakers of common design that would be owned and operated by the Coast Guard.
Although the current Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Mission Need Statement contemplates a combination of medium and heavy icebreakers, the report recommended a single class of polar icebreaker with heavy icebreaking capability. “Proceeding with a single class means that only one design will be needed, which will provide cost savings,” the report noted. Likewise, consolidating icebreaking services in the Coast Guard would be more efficient “splitting polar icebreaker operations among other agencies.” The report also expects the operating costs for new heavy polar icebreakers to be lower than Polar Star.
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