Some of the biggest names in US Arctic policy gathered in Washington DC on January 13 to discuss national security, but the real theme of the event was the future of the US icebreaker fleet.
Early on in the day Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft made a surprising announcement, telling the assembled audience that his service would publicly release its preliminary requirements for new icebreakers later that very day.
The requirements, along with a notional acquisition timeline, were indeed posted to a federal acquisition site later that afternoon. Of course, the document released on January 13 does not necessarily represent the official requirements for a new class of icebreakers—the Coast Guard clearly states that the only document that should be considered representative of its official requirements will be its Request for Proposal (RFP), due to be released sometime between late 2017 and early 2018.
Nonetheless, with the preliminary requirements released, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge about what kind of icebreakers the Coast Guard envisions buying in the coming decade.
Polar Star 2.0
For starters, the requirements of the 1-2 desired ships, which the Coast Guard creatively dubs “The Polar Icebreaker (PIB)”, bears a number of similarities to the service’s single operational heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star (WAGB-10).
Unlike the Coast Guard’s slightly newer medium icebreaker Healy (WAGB-20), the proposed PIB on paper is more of a workhorse than a research vessel. In terms of icebreaking capability—arguably the most important function of an icebreaker—the PIB is expected to have at least the same ice performance standards as the Polar Star.
The Coast Guard is requiring that, at a minimum, the new PIB be able to continuously break through ice between 6-8 feet thick at a speed of 3 knots, a similar capability to the Polar Star’s 6 feet of ice at 3 knots. The Coast Guard is also requiring that the PIB be able to ram through pressure ridges up to 21 feet thick—again, the same exact capability as the Polar Star.
Lifespan of 30 years
What remains to be seen is whether the PIB will utilize gas turbines to achieve that high ramming performance like the Polar Star and its dry docked sister ship Polar Sea do. The PIB will also be required to clear an 83 foot wide ice-free channel in a single pass, the same width of the Polar Star’s channel.
On other performance factors and specifications, the Coast Guard is asking for requirements similar to the 40-year-old Polar Star. The Coast Guard estimates that the PIB will have a crew of between 100-150 plus up to 50 additional scientific or other personnel, close to the Polar Star’s full crew of 155 plus 32 scientific personnel. The PIB’s projected operational lifespan of 30 years is also identical to the Polar Star’s initial projected lifespan.
As can be expected with any two ships conceptualized and designed four decades apart, there are some requirements for the PIB that outstrip the capabilities of the Polar Star. For example, the Coast Guard is asking for a more powerful crane aboard the PIB (20T) compared to the Polar Star’s (15T) and Healy’s (15T). Although still light, the Coast Guard is also doubling the planned armaments aboard the PIB, requiring at least four .50 caliber mounted machine guns compared to the Polar Star’s two mounted machine guns.
The Coast Guard’s medium icebreaker and research vessel Healy has no armaments. In terms of aviation space and facilities, the requirements of the PIB will make it, on paper, more capable than the Polar Star. The PIB will have the capacity to hanger two H-60 helicopters or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of similar size. For comparison, the Polar Star is capable of housing HH-65 Dolphin helicopters, which are smaller.
Given the advancements in the past 40 years, the technology aboard the PIB will undoubtedly be far ahead of the Polar Star. One major anticipated change between the Polar Star and the PIB will likely be hull design, especially considering the advancements that have been made in hull design in recent decades aimed at improving efficiency, maneuverability, and power. Emission standards and other polar-specific environmental regulations have also been updated since the late 1970’s, especially in light of the coming implementation of the IMO Polar Code in 2017.
Among such environmental concerns and the increase in offshore Arctic energy exploration, the Coast Guard is requiring that the PIB also be capable of operating an oil skimming system to respond to spills.
In a few instances, the PIB requirements are actually less ambitious than the Polar Star’s capabilities. For example, the PIB’s proposed operating temperature is -40°F, compared to the Polar Star’s -50°F operating threshold. The PIB’s required range, 21,500 nautical miles in ice-free water, is also less than the Polar Star’s 28,200 nautical miles.
In addition to releasing the preliminary requirements for the new PIB, the Coast Guard also put forth a notional schedule that represents “high-level milestones” for the acquisition of the first PIB. (See timeline below.)
The first milestone will come this March when Coast Guard acquisition officials will hold an ‘Industry Day’ to meet with potential shipbuilders and contractors to discuss the initial requirements and further refine them. Then in early 2017 the Coast Guard will release its first draft RFP followed by an official RFP in late 2017 or early 2018, which will more clearly lay out technical specifications and official requirements for the shipbuilding industry.
The Coast Guard anticipates awarding a contract for the first ship sometime between late 2018 and late 2019. Finally, the Coast Guard hopes to begin construction of the first PIB beginning as soon as late 2019.
Funding remains a headache
The baseline requirements released by the Coast Guard for new icebreakers are not overly ambitious and—on paper—do not represent a radical departure from the tried and true abilities of the Polar Star, which is perhaps not a bad thing.
Despite the well-thought out wish list of requirements, how the Coast Guard will actually pay for the new ships is still as unclear as ever.
A new site set up by the Coast Guard’s Acquisition Directorate for the icebreaker program continues to insist that a “whole-of-government” approach is needed to fund the new ships. While this has been the Coast Guard’s stance on the thorny money issue for years, Admiral Zukunft also appeared to undercut that company-line in his icebreaker talk last week at CSIS, saying "I do not advocate that we go after the [US] Navy's shipbuilding budget [to help pay for new Coast Guard icebreakers]".
In light of the uncertainty over how to pay for the new icebreaker(s), perhaps having initial requirements and goals that are achievable is pragmatic. Given the uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding where the funding will come from, not reinventing the proverbial icebreaker wheel will also help keep costs down and speed up development.
After all, the program requirements can still be changed between now and when the official RFP is issued in late 2017 or early 2018, at which point the funding picture will likely be clearer. We will know more on the Coast Guard’s future funding levels when the White House releases its 2017 budget proposal on February 7. After that, the Coast Guard’s icebreaker funding will be in Congress’ hands. Stay tuned..