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Friday, May 21, 2010

Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background, Issues, and Options for Congress

Ronald O'Rourke
Specialist in Naval Affairs

Coast Guard polar icebreakers perform a variety of missions supporting U.S. interests in polar regions. Two of the Coast Guard's three polar icebreakers—Polar Star and Polar Sea—have exceeded their intended 30-year service lives. The Polar Star is not operational and has been in caretaker status since July 1, 2006. Congress in FY2009 and FY2010 provided funding to repair Polar Star and return it to service for 7 to 10 years; the Coast Guard expects the reactivation project to be completed in FY2012. 

The Coast Guard's third polar icebreaker—Healy—entered service in 2000. Compared to Polar Star and Polar Sea, Healy has less icebreaking capability, but more capability for supporting scientific research. The ship is used primarily for supporting scientific research in the Arctic. 

A 2007 report from the National Research Council (NRC) on the U.S. polar icebreaking fleet states that "U.S. [polar] icebreaking capability is now at risk of being unable to support national interests in the north and the south." On July 16, 2008, Admiral Thad Allen, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, testified that: "Today, our nation is at a crossroads with Coast Guard domestic and international icebreaking capabilities. We have important decisions to make. And I believe we must address our icebreaking needs now.... " On May 3, 2010, he stated: "We need to have a serious discussion about icebreakers. It has not concluded. It's not even started, and you can see me be a little more vocal on that on the 26th of May [2010] because my change of command [i.e., retirement from the Coast Guard] is the 25th of May." 

The Coast Guard since 2008 has been studying how many polar icebreakers, with what capabilities, should be procured as replacements for Polar Star and Polar Sea. Following a decision to design and build one or more new polar icebreakers, the first replacement polar icebreaker might enter service in 8 to 10 years, by which time Polar Star and Polar Sea could be more than 40 years old. The Coast Guard estimated in February 2008 that new replacement ships might cost $800 million to $925 million each in 2008 dollars, and that the alternative of extending the service lives of Polar Sea and Polar Star for 25 years might cost about $400 million per ship. 

Potential policy issues for Congress regarding Coast Guard polar icebreaker modernization include the numbers and capabilities of polar icebreakers the Coast Guard will need in the future; whether to provide these icebreakers through construction of new ships or service life extensions of Polar Start and/or Polar Sea; whether to accelerate the Coast Guard's current schedule for acquiring replacement ships; whether new ships should be nuclear powered; whether new ships should be funded entirely in the Coast Guard budget, or partly or entirely in some other part of the federal budget, such as the Department of Defense (DOD) budget, the National Science Foundation (NSF) budget, or both; and whether, as an interim measure, the Polar Star should be repaired and placed back into service. 

The Coast Guard's proposed FY2011 budget does not request any funding in the service's Acquisition, Construction, and Improvements (AC&I) account for polar icebreaker sustainment or for acquisition of new polar icebreakers.

Date of Report: May 10, 2010
Number of Pages: 57
Order Number: RL34391
Price: $29.95

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