Coast Guard: US can’t lease, must build heavy icebreakers

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.

About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate 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 a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 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.


  1. Avatar
    Clark Dodge, C/E. on

    Interesting article but did not focus strongly enough on the return to service of the Polar Sea. It amazes me how anyone can say these ships can only serve for another 7 to 10 years. BS! with a proper continuous maintenance program these ships can last for many years to come until new vessels are designed and built. I have toured these ships several times over the years. The most important thing is to build ICEBREAKERS with higher specifications than these not make the same mistake as the Healy or a combination vessel. The country does not need another medium class vessel, it needs a heavy duty icebreaker. Far to many studies and surveys are done on the dollar amount rather than use a team of the players, as to what they want, what they need and what machinery needs overhaul and what needs replacement. I have done this for years with vessels far older than these vessels. It is not age of the vessel and equipment that is important. It is the support of that equipment that is important. Take the Main Engines for example, many times it is just better to pull the old engines and keep the good parts for the sister ship and replace them with current production engines. This goes for just about all the equipment. The same for electric motors, never just say overhaul them but spec what you demand with federal specs and so on. Do it right and you will get better than new.

  2. Avatar
    Mikepenney1@yahoo on

    What a stupid stance to take. Who said the USA was the chosen one… To control the whole planet at w2 receiving taxpayer expense so the multinationals can dodge taxes all over the world?

  3. Avatar

    A couple weeks ago the Polar Sea was towed down the Columbia River behind an ocean tug. Scrapping or back to Seattle? The big problem with that vessel is the wrong rings used in engine overhauls are frozen to the sleeves. Anyone with big diesel experience knows this isn’t an insurmountable problem.
    8 years ago 400 million each was estimated to extend the two sister ships 25 years. And now we’re a billion for 1 new ship, yet to be built. The government can’t administer machinery. Congress just throws money at problems and another good ship goes to the scrappers.
    Anyone that sailed on ships and smaller vessels that government sold to private industry knows they often go many times their government life with proper care and maintenance.

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