China to start construction on new icebreaker

A design model of the existing Chinese icebreaker Xue Long located at the Hong Kong Science Museum. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
China will mark a milestone with its first built polar icebreaker.

China will mark a milestone with its first built polar icebreaker

Construction will begin on China's first domestically-built polar icebreaker by the end of the year, according to the shipyard recently selected to fulfill the contract. The yet unnamed polar research icebreaker will be built by Jiangnan Shipyard Co. in Shanghai over a period of two years and at a cost of roughly $150 million.

Once completed, the ship will be owned by China’s State Oceanic Administration and undertake missions in both the Arctic and Antarctic. The icebreaker will be operated under a joint agreement between the Polar Research Institute of China and the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration.

Joining the fleet

The new ship is expected to join China’s Xue Long (Snow Dragon) sometime in late 2018-early 2019 as the country’s second polar-capable icebreaker.

The 23-year-old Xue Long was built in Ukraine in 1993 and acquired by China from Russia a year later. Based on preliminary designs, the newest edition to the Chinese fleet will offer a significant improvement over the Xue Long in terms of both icebreaking capability and research capacity. The construction of the new vessel will also signal to the world China’s ability to domestically produce serious polar icebreakers.

While the new icebreaker will be the first domestically-built polar icebreaker, Chinese shipyards are no strangers to building lighter-duty non-polar icebreaker. Most recently, China completed construction on a smaller naval icebreaker—Haibing 722—in January 2016, although the ship is restricted to operations in the Bohai Sea and is not expected to undertake polar missions.

Before that, in the 1970’s and 1980’s Jiangnan Shipyard built three non-polar icebreakers designed to clear channels in the Bohai Sea.

"Year round operation"

Full technical specifications for the new icebreaker have not yet been released, but the ship’s basic requirements and design parameters have been made available.

The new icebreaker is expected to be powered by a traditional diesel-electric powerplant, like the Xue Long and the vast majority of polar icebreakers in operations worldwide. The ship will be built to satisfy the requirements of a “Polar Class 3” icebreaker classification, indicating an ability to handle “year-round operation in second-year ice which may include multi-year ice inclusions”. Similarly, like almost every modern icebreaker in operation, the new Chinese ship will have aviation capacity to carry at least one helicopter.

On paper, the planned Chinese research icebreaker shares many characteristics with the United States Coast Guard’s 17-year-old medium-duty polar research icebreaker, Healy.

Like the Healy, the planned Chinese ship will measure between 122-128 meters in length and be heavily equipped to undertake a wide range of scientific research assignments, with ample lab space and a number of versatile cranes. In terms of ice capabilities, the new Chinese ship will be able to cruise through ice up to 1.5 meters thick both backwards and forwards at a speed of 3 knots, similar to the Healy’s 1.4 meters of ice at 3 knots and an improvement over the Xue Long’s 1.2 meters of ice at 2-3 knots.

The Healy, however, is able to ram through ice up to 2.43 meters thick, in part because the Healy’s powerplant can muster 22.4 MW of power, while the new Chinese icebreaker is slated for 15 MW. But what the Chinese icebreaker may lack in power compared to the Healy, it makes up for in versatility. Unlike the Healy, China’s new icebreaker will be equipped with two ABB Azipod VI propulsion units, offering it a higher degree of maneuverability.

More ships on the horizon?

As China continues to build its fleet of polar-capable ships, it may begin to look beyond traditional diesel-electric propulsion to nuclear-powered ships. In the past month, Chinese state-owned shipbuilding conglomerate China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) signed a cooperation agreement with the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), the country’s military and civilian nuclear agency.

While the specific details of the agreement are not yet publicly available, the agreement is widely understood to be aimed at bolstering China’s civil maritime nuclear capabilities, especially for the future construction of nuclear icebreakers. Icebreakers, and to a lesser extent ice-capable cargo ships, are natural candidates for nuclear propulsion. Today, only Russia operates civilian nuclear-powered ships in the Arctic, but with the latest agreement that may one day change.