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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

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. The Coast Guard’s two heavy polar icebreakers—Polar Star and Polar Sea—have exceeded their intended 30-year service lives, and neither is currently in operational condition. The Polar Star was placed in caretaker status on 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 December 2012. On June 25, 2010, the Coast Guard announced that Polar Sea had suffered an unexpected engine casualty; the ship has been unavailable for operation since then. The Coast Guard placed Polar Sea in commissioned, inactive status on October 14, 2011.

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

The Coast Guard’s FY2012 budget proposes decommissioning Polar Sea in FY2011 and transitioning its crew to the reactivated Polar Star. The resulting U.S. polar icebreaking fleet would consist of one heavy polar icebreaker (Polar Star) and one medium polar icebreaker (Healy). The Coast Guard is transferring certain major equipment from Polar Sea to Polar Star to facilitate Polar Star’s return to service.

In July 2011, the Coast Guard provided to Congress a study on the Coast Guard’s missions and capabilities for operations in high-latitude (i.e., polar) areas. The study, commonly known as the High Latitude Study and dated July 2010 on its cover, concluded the following: “The Coast Guard requires three heavy and three medium icebreakers to fulfill its statutory missions. The Coast Guard requires six heavy and four medium icebreakers to fulfill its statutory missions and maintain the continuous presence requirements of the [2010] Naval Operations Concept. Applying non-material alternatives for crewing and homeporting reduces the overall requirement to four heavy and two medium icebreakers.”

Following any decision to design and build one or more new polar icebreakers, the first replacement polar icebreaker might enter service in 8 to 10 years. 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. In August 2010, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Robert Papp, reportedly estimated the cost of extending their lives at about $500 million per ship.

Potential issues for Congress regarding Coast Guard polar icebreaker modernization include the potential impact on U.S. polar missions of the United States currently having no operational heavy polar icebreakers; the absence of an announced firm acquisition plan for replacing Polar Star upon completion of its 7- to 10-year post-reactivation service life; the disposition of Polar Sea; 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 existing polar icebreakers; and 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.

Date of Report: November
3, 2011
Number of Pages:
Order Number: R
Price: $29.95

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