Polar icebreakers for combat ships?

Last month, the Department of Defense announced that it had awarded contracts to both Austal USA and Lockheed Martin for production runs of their respective littoral combat ships. Pending Congressional appropriations, each contractor group will build 10 more of their competing designs (Austal’s aluminum trimaran and Lockheed Martin/Marinette’s steel monohull). So far, each team has built one prototype, and each has another under construction.

The cost numbers are typically confusing. One source says each team’s total take over the 10-ship run will be about $3.5 billion. Another estimate comes in at about $4.4 billion, each. 

In any event, $440 million per ship is considered reasonable for the Navy. According to a Department of Defense news release, “The Navy’s LCS acquisition strategy meets the spirit and intent of the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 and reflects the Navy’s commitment to affordability.”

And since they’re cheaper by the dozen, the Navy wants at least 55 of these high-speed, shallow-draft war machines to roam the littorals of the world.

How about we swap four of them for two new icebreakers? If the Navy could somehow make do with just 51 littoral combat ships, that would free up almost enough money for a pair of new Polar-class icebreakers.

Frankly, I’m unconvinced of the need for 55 LCSes. At the same time, I think we absolutely need at least two new multimission, Polar-class icebreakers since two of three that we currently have were built in the ‘70s and have exceeded their 30-year lives.

One of those ships, the Polar Star, is currently getting a refit at Todd Pacific Shipyard in Seattle, which is fine because new icebreakers take at least eight to 10 years to design and build. So the Polar Star and the Polar Sea should both be deployable until their replacements are ready.

The Arctic Ocean is opening up quickly. Our need to be more active in the region is growing as the ice cap thins and retreats. Not only do we need to maintain territorial security, but there are also significant economic and scientific issues at play up there. Polar-class icebreakers are absolutely necessary for the pursuit of these interests, and it can’t be done with aluminum trimarans or even semi-planing steel monohulls.

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About the author

Bruce Buls

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).

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