Construction of New Coast Guard Icebreakers Faces Major Setback

The U.S. Coast Guard’s only heavy icebreaker, the 48-year-old Polar Star. USCG photo.

Lack of experience in building icebreaking ships, as well as the overall cost of the program were cited by a congressional subcommittee chairman last week as key factors in delay of construction of the vessels to replace a nearly 50-year-old heavy icebreaker.

“The demand for Coast Guard services is increasing and will continue to increase in the future,” Rep. Carlos A. Gimenez, R-Florida, chair of the House Homeland security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security, said.

Gimenez noted in opening remarks at the May 7 subcommittee meeting that the Coast Guard has not commissioned an icebreaker of any kind since 2006. He cited concerns over the Coast Guard’s failure to accurately estimate the cost of its shipbuilding programs.

Testimony given during the hearing stated that all three heavy icebreakers requested by the Coast Guard were five years behind schedule and that costs had risen from the initial estimate of under $2 billion to $5.1 billion.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said he’s disappointed that the Polar Security Program is so far behind schedule and above cost.

“This is just one example of the troubles faced by our domestic shipbuilding industry and highlights why securing funding to purchase a commercially available icebreaker was critical,” he said.

Among those testifying before the subcommittee was Eric Labs, a senior analyst for Naval Forces and Weapons at the Congressional Budget Office in Washington, D.C. Labs said the procurement cost of the three icebreakers would be 60% greater than the Coast Guard’s most recent estimate.

The Guard’s only heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, is 48 years old, and the Coast Guard keeps it operating in part by scavenging parts from its nonoperational sister ship, the Polar Sea, Labs told the subcommittee.

Labs also noted that the increase in the number of polar icebreakers desired by the Coast Guard is driven by increased commercial activity and economic and geopolitical competition in the Arctic.

“Given those developments, the service believes that the year-round continuous presence of one polar icebreaker in the East Arctic and another in the West Arctic, as well as a half-time presence of another polar icebreaker in the Antarctic, is necessary,” he said.