Behind the political and budget smokescreens billowing out of Washington, the deep thinkers on sea power and ships are still there, quietly at work. Some results emerged in recent days, almost unnoticed in the daily media roar that has become normal for the capital.
Last week the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine recommended the Coast Guard realign its plan for a new polar fleet, and build a class of four heavy icebreakers. The finding breaks with official thinking to date, which was considering a series of three heavy and three medium icebreakers.
It is arguably well past decision time. The U.S. is down to two icebreakers: the 420’ medium icebreaker Healy, which carries out scientific missions in the Arctic, and the 399’ Polar Star, the sole heavy icebreaker that supports the U.S. station at McMurdo in Antarctica.
Built in 1976, the Polar Star keeps going through careful upkeep, spare components from her laid-up sister ship Polar Sea in Seattle, and even scrounging on the Internet to buy electrical parts, Coast Guard officials have told Congress.
A block buy program with price incentives could build four new heavy icebreakers for an average $791 million each, with the fourth ship costing less than the lead vessel of a new medium class, according to the National Academies report.
Until then – likely 2024 when the first new polar ship would be commissioned – the Polar Star has to keep going.
Meanwhile, the Navy outlined what it wants in its proposed FFG(X) guided missile frigate design. A request for information (RFI) from the Navy calls for the future frigate to do more than the littoral combat ship (LCS) class, with enhanced sensor systems including unmanned drone technology.
The Navy is looking for more surface warfare and air defense firepower too, apparently by incorporating vertical launch missiles into the design. LCS builder Austal USA jumped right in with a public response.
“Austal USA welcomes the Navy’s FFG(X) RFI. With our hot LCS production line and highly skilled workforce, we are well prepared and very excited for this great opportunity to take the next step into future warfighting by expanding the capabilities of the Independence-variant LCS,” Austal president Craig Perciavalle said in a statement. “We will work hard to provide a highly capable ship that answers the Navy’s future needs for the FFG(X).”
Finally, the National Science Foundation sent $121.88 million to Oregon State University to pay for the first of three regional coastal research vessels (RCRVs) that will support ocean sciences off the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. The first keel will be laid next year at Gulf Island Shipyards, Houma, La.
The new class of 193’x41’ ships, small, versatile and efficient, will fill the place of an old 184’ class from the mid-1970s including the Oceanus, OSU’s current research vessel that it inherited from the Woods Holes Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.
Like the icebreakers, the RCRV class has been a long time coming, and if plans work out they will be in service through the 2060s – when today’s young ocean scientists will start adding “emeritus” to their academic titles.
“These ships will be very forward-looking and are expected to support science operations for 40 years or longer,” said Demian Bailey of OSU, a co-leader of the RCRV project. “They will be the most advanced ships of their kind in the country.”
History is full of examples when politicians and institutions dithered endlessly over spending money on the unavoidable. Back when the Air Force was trying to replace its hard-used fleet of C-141 Starlifter transport aircraft from the 1960s, Gen. Ron Fogleman, the service’s airlift boss and later chief of staff, had to defend the cost of replacement C-17 Globemaster III jets from Congressional critics.
The C-141s had already been modernized – their fuselages even extended in the 1970s – but the end was near, Fogleman would say: “I don’t know of many airplanes you can keep flying this much past 40 years.”
That the Polar Star is still running past its 40th birthday is a testament to Coast Guard ingenuity. But time is tight.