Military


Icebreakers

The purpose of the Ice Operations Program (IO) is to provide the United States the capability and resources necessary to carry out and support national interests in the polar regions, to facilitate the movement of maritime transportation (commerce) through ice laden domestic waters, to carry out the International Ice Patrol, and to assist other governmental and scientific organizations in the pursuit of marine science activities. The Ice Operations Program supports the performance of other Coast Guard programs in waters constrained by ice.

Contingency preparedness responsibilities of the IO Program are to provide logistics and general support in the polar regions and ice covered domestic waters. At time of war or national emergency, the IO Program's resources continue their peacetime activities with slight change in emphasis.

As declared in a variety of legislation and presidential decision documents, the U.S. has significant economic, environmental, and security interests in the polar regions. Federal responsibility for promoting these interests has been assigned to the various agencies per their normal mandates. In a like manner, responsibility for developing and maintaining a fleet of icebreaking vessels capable of operating effectively in the heavy ice regions of the Arctic and Antarctic has been assigned to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard has been the sole U.S. operator of heavy icebreakers since the Navy's icebreakers were transferred to the Coast Guard in 1965. Because the Coast Guard required icebreakers to accomplish its own missions and would transfer to the Navy during time of war, this consolidation of icebreaking assets provided the management efficiencies and flexibility of a unified fleet. The (1990)President's Report on Polar Icebreaker Requirements has indicated a national need for three polar icebreakers operated by the Coast Guard plus one ice capable research vessel leased by the National Science Foundation.

Since FY 1983, the polar icebreakers have been funded under a variety of user reimbursement schemes. Currently, users pay a standard rate for transits, actual fuel consumed within the operating area, and two daily surcharges for vessel and helicopter maintenance. User reimbursement was imposed upon the Coast Guard to moderate potentially unlimited user requests for icebreakers, but uncertainties in user funding have led to inefficiencies. If a user drops a project, the other users must assume an additional share of the costs if the mission is to proceed or they must also drop out. As a result, missions may be cancelled with too little notice to schedule effective training or maintenance, and the vessel sits idle.

Domestic icebreaking is normally conducted for search and rescue and other emergency situations, prevention of flooding caused by ice, and facilitation of navigation for commerce.

The first of these reasons relates to the Coast Guard's statutory responsibility to carry out "traditional" Coast Guard missions (search and rescue, law enforcement, aids to navigation, etc.). These responsibilities do not cease when waters are covered by ice. The domestic icebreaker fleet provides the means to carry out these responsibilities in those U.S. waters that are covered with seasonal ice. The regions that are normally affected by ice formation are the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway, the northeast U.S. coast and Alaska.

The second reason is related to other Coast Guard measures to preserve lives and property. Icebreaking is done to alleviate flooding due to ice accumulation in rivers. Flood relief icebreaking may be conducted under the Coast Guard's broad authority to aid distressed persons and property, or in response to requests by federal, state, or local government agencies. This support of other agencies is provided in consultation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which has federal responsibility for flood control.

Finally, by Executive Order, the Coast Guard has been directed to assist in keeping open to navigation, in so far as practicable, channels and harbors per the reasonable demands of commerce. During peacetime, this form of icebreaking is done primarily to ensure a regular navigation season on the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway, and the northeast U.S. coast and to ensure commercial fishing fleets can enter and leave icebound ports. During a war effort, however, this icebreaking practice serves a critical need to maintain marine transportation systems for strategic material movement.

Polar research depends heavily on ships capable of operating in ice-covered regions, either as research platforms in the Arctic and Southern Oceans or as key components of the logistics chain supporting on-continent research in Antarctica. Many areas in the Arctic and Antarctic are only accessible by ship. As the primary U.S. supporter of fundamental research in these regions, NSF is the primary customer of polar icebreaker and ice-strengthened vessel services for scientific research purposes.

The USCG has performed its icebreaking mission in Antarctica with distinction for many decades, but with increasing difficulty in recent years. Its two Polar Class icebreakers are nearing the end of their estimated lifetime and are becoming increasingly difficult and costly to keep in service.

In 1966 the Navy decided to give the Coast Guard total responsibility for icebreaker operations. In fact, the Navy transferred all of their remaining icebreakers to the nation's oldest continuous sea-going service and since that time the Coast Guard has been the sole U.S. military service conducting polar icebreaking cruises. In the mid 1970's the Coast Guard began painting all of its polar icebreakers' hulls red to make them easier for helicopter pilots to spot in the ice. The Mackinaw was exempted from the change.

In 1983-84 an interagency committee in Washington attempted to assess future U.S. requirements for polar icebreakers. The study group included representatives of the Coast Guard, Marad, DOD, NSF, NOAA, OMB and OST [Marad: Maritime Administration; DOD: Department of Defense represented by the Oceanographer of the Navy; NSF: National Science Foundation; NOAA: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration; OMB: Office of Management & Budget; OST: Office of the Secretary of Transportation]. The study was to assess the national need for a polar icebreaker fleet, recommend a fleet size to meet all requirements to the year 2000, and to develop financing options for the construction and operation of the fleet. Comprehensive analyses were performed on the status of the present fleet and alternatives to a federal polar icebreaker fleet. A survey of users was conducted to ascertain peacetime and wartime requirements. After nearly a year of discussion and debate an interagency report entitled "United States Polar Icebreaker Requirements Study" was published in July 1984. Several of the principal findings are that a A fleet of 4 ships should be maintained; the Coast Guard recommended a fifth ship remain in reserve for emergencies or possible increases in difficult-to-forecast, long-term polar requirements.

US operations in Antartica requires access to ships serving two quite different functions: multi-purpose icebreakers that can operate in the Southern Ocean as research platforms that also resupply our coastal Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula; and heavy-duty icebreakers that can open a resupply channel through fast ice to McMurdo Station. From McMurdo, supplies are transferred to the U.S. research station at the South Pole and to temporary remote field stations at various points on the continent. These two requirements are met in quite different ways.

The USCG has performed its icebreaking mission in Antarctica with distinction for many decades, but with increasing difficulty in recent years. Its two Polar Class icebreakers are nearing the end of their estimated service lives and are becoming increasingly difficult and costly to keep in service. According to the USCG, there are several years of service life in the Polar Sea, but the Polar Star has now been placed in caretaker status per agreement with USCG in view of the decreasing need for her services and the high cost of putting her back into service.

Scientific research, and operational support of that research, is the principal activity supported in Antarctica by the United States Government. The goals are to expand fundamental knowledge of the region, to foster research on global and regional problems of current scientific importance, and to utilize the region as a platform from which to support research. For projects involving fieldwork, the USAP supports research that can only or can best be done in Antarctica.

The Program has been in continuous operation since the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year and continuation into the foreseeable future is anticipated. U.S. activities in Antarctica support the Nation's adherence to the Antarctic Treaty, which reserves the region for peaceful purposes and encourages international cooperation in scientific research. At present, 45 nations adhere to the treaty, and 29 of them are involved in Antarctic field activities. The United States cooperates scientifically and operationally with many of the Antarctic Treaty nations.

The major logistics hub for the support of this science is McMurdo Station. McMurdo is located on Ross Island in the Southern edge of the Ross Sea. It is the furthest south exposed land to which a ship can sail. Under the current operations, the USCG icebreaker typically arrives at 60 deg S on or about December 25. Anticipated departure from McMurdo is mid-February of the following year (6-8 weeks after arrival). The basic tasks are to open a channel to the McMurdo Station pier, and escort a tanker and a freighter through the sea ice and channel to the pier and back to the open ocean as required. By 2008 the overriding question was how to open the channel through the ice to McMurdo Station so that year-round operation of the nation's McMurdo and South Pole stations can continue. This year-round occupation is central to demonstrating the "active and influential presence" which is the cornerstone of U.S. policy in Antarctica as articulated in Presidential Memorandum No. 6646 on U.S. Antarctic Policy and Programs (February 5, 1982).

Given the rapidly escalating costs of government providers for icebreaking services and the uncertain availability of USCG icebreakers beyond 2010, it is NSF's intention to seek competitive bids for icebreaking services that support the broad goals of the USAP. This competition will be open to commercial, government, and international service providers.

The Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Thad Allen, made it one of his top three priorities to find a resolution to the state of the Polar Icebreaking program. In fiscal year 2006 the Committees on Appropriations approved an Administration request for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the primary user of the three Coast Guard polar icebreaker vessels, to fund the costs of operating and maintaining these aging vessels. Because it had become more apparent that the national interest in the polar regions extends beyond scientific research, the many began to question whether this arrangement should continue.

US interests require an active patrol presence in the waters north of Alaska (especially in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas). The USCG Polar Class vessels are nearing the end of their intended service life and will need to be replaced soon to meet US Polar icebreaking needs. The USCG Naval Architecture Branch (ELC 023) was receiving an increasing number of internal questions related to Polar Class replacement vessels. Similarly the 140' WTGB Icebreaking Tugs for use on the Great Lakes, rivers and coastal harbors, will also need replacement. To support planning for these vessel replacement programs, a study of the current state of the art in icebreaking vessel technology was required.

In the Arctic, the melting of polar ice packs is accelerating to the point that the National Snow and Ice Data Center has reported that the North Pole may briefly be ice free. The melting of polar ice is a catalyst for what appears to be increasing interest in the creation of new shipping passages, particularly in the Arctic, as well as a new scramble for the assertion of national control over natural resources. As shipping traffic increases in the polar regions, the Coast Guard may need to expand its presence to provide many of its traditional services, including search and rescue operations. Additionally, icebreaking capacity is required to resupply the Antarctic research station McMurdo.

With some climate models predicting an ice-free Arctic summer in the future, more international expeditions will be headed to the region to examine newly revealed oil and gas reserves and other natural resources. Canada, Russia, and other countries will begin to compete with the United States over jurisdiction and, without a strong polar icebreaker fleet, our Nation will suffer a severe disadvantage.

By 2008 the Coast Guard had less polar icebreaking capacity than at any time since World War II. The service's two heavy icebreakers, the Polar Star and the Polar Sea, had both exceeded their intended 30-year service lives. The Polar Star has been placed on caretaker status. The Polar Sea was scheduled to undergo a major maintenance. Both vessels would need hundreds of millions of dollars of repairs and upgrades if they are to continue in service. The Coast Guard's only other polar icebreaker, the cutter Healy, was commissioned in 2000 and has many years of service life left. Unfortunately, the Healy does not offer the same icebreaking capabilities as the Polar Star or the Polar Sea.

Over 22 percent of the world's energy supply is under the Arctic ice cap. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has stated that Russia should unilaterally claim part of the Arctic, stepping up the race for the disputed energy-rich region. Russia has a fleet of 20 heavy ice breakers and is nearing completion of the first of their newest fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers in an effort to control energy exploration and maritime trade in the region. By the end of the Bush Administration, the United States had only one functioning heavy polar icebreaker, and it had only six years left of useful life.

Traditionally, the Coast Guard's polar icebreaking missions were conducted largely in support of the National Science Foundation, which pays the Healy's operating and maintenance costs. However, the NSF has suggested that alternatives not involving the use of military vessels may meet its research needs in a more cost-effective manner. If so, the Government must examine whether the United States should build new icebreakers and what specific purposes they could serve.

For fiscal year 2008, the Senate authorized the appropriation of whatever amounts were necessary to acquire two new icebreakers and to achieve and maintain full operational capability of the rest of the agency's icebreaker fleet (currently three ships). CBO estimates that implementing section 917 would increase discretionary spending by $165 million in 2008 and nearly $1.5 billion over 2008-2012 period, assuming appropriation of the necessary amounts. A 2007 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that the United States needs to maintain polar icebreaking capacity and construct at least two new polar icebreakers. This provision follows those recommendations.

In testimony before both houses of Congress, Mead Treadwell, Chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC), encouraged the United States to prepare for significantly greater shipping in the Arctic Ocean as climate change, improved technology and demand for Arctic resources make northern seaways more accessible. In hearings of the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on July 16, 2008, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on June 24, 2008, Treadwell cited the central role the Arctic plays in global air transportation, and predicts a similar role for the Arctic Ocean in shipping. Treadwell noted that the Senate's preference to build two new polar class icebreakers as Coast Guard Authorization Act for fiscal year 2008 was based on economic factors as well as on security and science concerns, as testified to by Admiral Thad Allen, Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard, and Dr. Arden Bement, Director, National Science Foundation. Treadwell cited seven "billion dollar, if not trillion-dollar" economic issues in the Arctic that help justify an approximate $1.5 billion investment in new U.S. polar class icebreakers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd unveiled a $56.2 billion economic recovery package on 25 September 2008. The Senate Democratic plan provided $925 million to the Coast Guard with for construction of a new polar ice-breaking ship. They stated that this would provide what the Navy and the Air Force call, "an essential instrument of U.S. policy" in the region. Constructing a new Coast Guard icebreaker will ensure that the United States has the ability to respond to the growing risks presented by increased activity in the Arctic and protects U.S. environmental, economic, homeland security and national security interests in both Polar Regions.



NEWSLETTER
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list