U.S. shipbuilders: We are ready, capable to build icebreakers

Shipyards told Congress Tuesday that they have the technical knowledge, workforce skills and construction experience to build the next generation of heavy icebreakers that will meet the growing U.S. maritime and security interests in the Arctic.

“There is strong interest in icebreaker construction from at least 10 shipyards located around the nation from the Northeast to California to the Northwest and again along the Gulf Coast and Great Lakes region,” Matthew Paxton, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America, told a House subcommittee hearing on the Coast Guard’s Arctic capabilities.

“The level of interest will ensure a robust level of competition for this project, which is certainly good for the Coast Guard and for the nation.”

Paxton said that although U.S. shipyards have not designed or built a heavy icebreaker in the past 40 years, the industry has delivered several other icebreakers during that period. The medium polar icebreaker Healy – built by Huntington Ingalls at its now-shuttered Avondale Shipyard in Louisiana – was put into service in 2000, and is actually larger than the Lockheed-built heavy icebreakers Polar Star and Polar Sea. The industry also built a smaller icebreaker for scientific research in 1992, the Great Lakes icebreaker Mackinaw in 2005, and the commercial icebreaking anchor-handling tug supply vessel Aiviq in 2012.

Industries that partner with shipyards also have the capability, equipment and technology to support building icebreakers, and the shipyard workforce is experienced in working with the steel thickness required for these heavy vessels. Paxton said many yards have built commercial containerships that require a steel thickness that is greater than that of icebreakers. “And many of our shipyards work in heavy steel construction beyond ships, building structures for nuclear power plants” that have even thicker steel requirements.

“Any notion that our industry could not handle the engineering and manufacturing of steel hulls rated at the highest polar codes for icebreaking just does not understand the capability of the domestic shipyard industry,” Paxton told the House subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

He said that once the Coast Guard has stable and validated requirements in place, it would take about seven-and-a-half years to build a new icebreaker, from start of concept design and construction to delivery.

Global interest in maritime traffic in the Arctic has intensified as the summer sea ice levels have reduced, making the area navigable for longer periods. There’s also strong interest in exploration for oil, gas and minerals. This has prompted the Coast Guard to develop a strategy to meet mission demands in the region, and has highlighted the age and inadequate condition of the heavy polar icebreaking fleet to meet the new responsibilities. A recent study by the Government Accountability Office said that there will be a three- to six-year gap in heavy icebreaking capability before a new icebreaker is operational.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said Congress must work over the next few months to set a policy to authorize and build two to three heavy icebreakers and two to three medium icebreakers. This should be done before the end of the year so that the new Congress and new administration have a policy in place going forward, Garamendi recommended.

President Obama has requested $150 million to fast-track construction of a new icebreaker, and the Senate Appropriations Committee recently included $1 billion for the first ship in the Defense Appropriations bill.

Garamendi concluded the hearing by saying that when it comes to building icebreakers, there’s no question that “we will make (them) in America.”

About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.

1 Comment

  1. Peter Becker Ph.D. on

    Considering that Polar Star and Polar Sea were built from HY80 and HY100 in the bow areas, in which the plates and curved sections were actually formed in Japan, not at Lockheed. The welding on these critical areas was all done by Mr. Paul Farley, the only one qualified to do the welds on HY80 and 100, and that the variable pitch screws, a European design translated by International Harvester Corp, into ASME standards from ISO standards, thus rendering structures which lacked the durability of the original design specifications which do perform very well in the designs in Europe, it is, to use a quaint maritime expression,”whistling down the wind” to suggest the same yards that made the structurally flawed Polar Class should be allowed to repeat the folly… Perhaps with some training from the men and women who continue to bulild the World Class icebreakers continualy coming out of northern Europe!
    Yes, I served on both Polar Class ships on many cruises, as well as all of the Wind class (with the exception of EDISTO, which was decommissioned before I graduated from college and began my career as a Polar Oceanographer and Diver.

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