U.S. Cancels All Arctic Operations After Icebreaker Healy Suffers Engine Fire

Healy patrols the Arctic Ocean near Oliktok Point, Alaska, in July 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst)

The U.S. Coast Guard has canceled its Arctic patrol mission after the icebreaker Healy experienced an engine room fire. This leaves the U.S. without surface vessel presence in the region during the summer of 2020, highlighting the country’s limited icebreaking capabilities.

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) icebreaker Healy suffered from an electrical fire in its engine room last week disabling its starboard propulsion motor and shaft. As a result of the fire, the vessel had to cancel its Arctic mission and is returning to its homeport in Seattle for repairs. “As a result of the fire, all Arctic operations have been cancelled,” the Coast Guard said in a statement

The Healy, the younger of the two operational Coast Guard icebreakers, was en route to the Bering Strait in the American Arctic for a 26-day patrol dubbed “Operational Arctic Shield.” The vessel had reached southern Alaska near Seward, south of Anchorage, when the fire broke out around 21:30 on August 18.

Fortunately, the crew was able to quickly contain the fire and the blaze was fully extinguished by 21:56. “I commend the crew of the Healy for their quick actions to safely combat the fire,” says Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, the Pacific Area commander.

Linda Fagan, Pacific Area commander. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard
Linda Fagan, Pacific Area commander. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)
Linda Fagan, Pacific Area commander. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

The incident, however, lays open how limited the U.S.’ resources in the Arctic are. In contrast to Russia’s extensive fleet of nuclear and conventional icebreakers, the U.S. is relying on just two vessels: the vintage 44-year old Polar Star and the 21-year old Healy

While the U.S. is trying to reinforce its Arctic assets and has ordered new icebreakers, the first of which is to begin construction next year, it will be at least another 5 years before new vessels will enter into service.

"This casualty...means that the United States is limited in icebreaking capability until the Healy can be repaired, and it highlights the nation’s critical need for Polar Security Cutters,” explains Fagan.

U.S. is limited in icebreaking capability until the Healy can be repaired.
Vice Admiral Linda L. Fagan

Second fire in two years

This is not the first time that a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker has suffered from fire aboard. 

Just last year a fire erupted aboard the USCG’s other icebreaker, the Polar Star, en route to Antarctica requiring lengthy repairs of the electrical systems.

At the time Fagan said: “It’s always a serious matter whenever a shipboard fire breaks out at sea, and it’s even more concerning when that ship is in one of the most remote places on Earth.”

Rush to replace ageing icebreakers

This latest incident also highlights how the U.S.’ Arctic rhetoric and capabilities diverge. Just last month President Trump boasted, incorrectly, how the U.S. has the world’s largest icebreaker under construction and was looking to build ten new vessels, including nuclear icebreakers. In reality, the country is relying on two ageing vessels with no replacements until at least the second half of this decade

Last year the USCG awarded VT Halter Marine Inc., a shipbuilder on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, a contract for the design and construction of the new heavy icebreaker, also known as Polar Security Cutter. The contract is valued at $745.9 million and covers the design, engineering, and construction costs of the first of what the USCG hopes will become a fleet of six new icebreakers. The Coast Guard has requested additional funding for the second vessel as part of the 2021 budget, which is awaiting approval by the U.S. Congress. 

Furthermore, the initially approved design, based on the Germany Polarstern II specifications, now faces a host of modifications as the Trump administration has asked for a review of the plans including requests to add more powerful armament to the vessels. A U.S. government watchdog agency already warned that modifications to the approved design could result in costly and lengthy delays to the project.