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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues 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 existing heavy polar icebreakers—Polar Star and Polar Sea— have exceeded their originally intended 30-year service lives. Polar Star was placed in caretaker status on July 1, 2006. Congress in FY2009 and FY2010 provided funding to repair it and return it to service for an additional 7 to 10 years of service; the repair work was completed and the ship was reactivated on December 14, 2012.

On June 25, 2010, the Coast Guard announced that Polar Sea had suffered an unexpected engine casualty; the ship was unavailable for operation after that. The Coast Guard placed Polar Sea in commissioned, inactive status on October 14, 2011. Section 222 of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2012 (H.R. 2838/P.L. 112-213 of December 20, 2012) prohibits the Coast Guard from removing any part of Polar Sea and from transferring, relinquishing ownership of, dismantling, or recycling the ship until it submits a business case analysis of the options for and costs of reactivating the ship and extending its service life to at least September 30, 2022, so as to maintain U.S. polar icebreaking capabilities and fulfill the Coast Guard’s high latitude mission needs, as identified in the Coast Guard’s July 2010 High Latitude Study.

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 proposed FY2013 budget includes $8 million in acquisition funding to initiate survey and design activities for a new polar icebreaker. The Coast Guard’s Five Year Capital Investment Plan includes an additional $852 million in FY2014-FY2017 for acquiring the ship. The Coast Guard anticipates awarding a construction contract for the ship “within the next five years” and taking delivery on the ship “within a decade.” The project to design and build a polar icebreaker is a new acquisition project initiated in the FY2013 budget.

With the reactivation of Polar Star, the operational U.S. polar icebreaking fleet consists of one heavy polar icebreaker (Polar Star) and one medium polar icebreaker (Healy). The new polar icebreaker for which initial acquisition funding is requested in the FY2013 budget would replace Polar Star at about the time Polar Star’s 7- to 10-year reactivation period ends.

Potential 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; the disposition of Polar Sea; whether the new polar icebreaker initiated in the FY2013 budget should be funded with incremental funding (as proposed in the Coast Guard’s Five Year Capital Investment Plan) or full funding in a single year, as normally required under the executive branch’s full funding policy; whether new polar icebreakers 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; whether to provide future icebreaking capability through construction of new ships or service life extensions of existing polar icebreakers; and whether future polar icebreakers should be acquired through a traditional acquisition or a leasing arrangement.

Date of Report: March 15, 2013
Number of Pages: 64
Order Number: RL34391
Price: $29.95

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