The United States has no choice to press on with building a new generation of heavy icebreakers – and in the meantime, most likely spend to keep alive one of its two 1970s-era polar ships, Coast Guard vice commandant Adm. Charles Michel told Congress Tuesday.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee of Coast Guard and Marine Transportation, Michel basically shot down any idea that heavy icebreaker replacement might be expedited by going to overseas shipbuilders for leased vessels.

“There’s nothing out there on Planet Earth that you can lease in the heavy icebreaker area. That’s kind of where we are, sir,” Michel told subcommittee chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.

Hunter is an advocate for building a new U.S. icebreaker fleet sooner, to keep on top of a warming Arctic with more maritime traffic and potential new energy and natural resources. He pointedly questioned Michel during a hearing that was examining a Government Accountability Office report on the Coast Guard’s need to allocate its assets and workforce requirements. The icebreaker issue has loomed large in recent weeks, with the Obama administration requesting $150 million to start construction of a first ship in 2020, and the Senate moving to throw a full $1 billion at the project.

Hunter, who has pushed for getting the Navy involved and looking at alternatives like overseas leasing to speed the process, pressed Michel on what more could be done before the first ship now estimated for delivery in 2024-2025.

“Why don’t we work with the Senate now to try and build two?” Hunter said. “What about the next 10 years?”
The 399’x83’6”x31’ heavy icebreaker Polar Star, commissioned in 1976 and refitted in 2010-2012 at the Vigor Industrial shipyard in Seattle, has five to seven years of service left before another refit would be necessary, Michel said. Sister ship Polar Sea is now at the Vigor yard, and Michel is to deliver an assessment of that ship’s condition when the subcommittee meets July 12.

The decision to be made is whether to undertake a “rolling recapitalization” of the Polar Star to extend its life past the mid-2020s, or play out the ship while refitting the Polar Sea, Michel said.

Michel said he traveled to Sweden and Finland to talk with icebreaking experts and shipbuilders about the possibility of obtaining other ships, to bridge what Hunter calls a “capability gap” for the U.S. at high latitudes. But there is nothing out there with the capability of the Polar class sister ships, Michel said.

That U.S. service standard requires ability to bust 6’ of ice at 3 knots – and ideally 8’ of ice – and break up to 21’ of ice by backing and ramming maneuver. The third U.S. icebreaker, the 420’x82’x29’3” medium-class Healy, is not as powerful.

Hunter questioned why the U.S. could not at least obtain some medium-duty icebreakers to fill the gap.

“You’re basically saying you’d rather have zero capacity than 80 percent capacity?” he challenged Michel.
Michel replied that heavy icebreakers are the only way to have “global ensured, seven (days) by 24 (hours) by 365 access” year-round to the polar regions: “If you cannot provide presence to an area, you cannot establish national sovereignty.”

That is part of the Healy’s summer research voyage to the Arctic that commenced last week. The ship is surveying the sea floor to establish grounds for claiming U.S. sovereignty to waters north of Alaska, an area potentially twice as big as California, Michel said.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.