US Coast Guard concerned over icebreaker fleet

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche
ShipInsight

18 January 2019


A statement issued by the US Coast Guard concerning deployment of its icebreakers highlights problems in ice navigation ability.

Yesterday, the USCG Cutter Polar Star arrived in Antarctica along with a resupply vessel during Operation Deep Freeze – a joint military service mission to resupply US interests in Antarctica. Homeported in Seattle, the 42-year-old vessel is the United States’ only operational heavy icebreaker, and the crew is making their sixth deployment in as many years to directly support the resupply of McMurdo Station – the main US logistics hub in Antarctica.

Operation Deep Freeze is a joint military service mission in support of the National Science Foundation – the lead agency for the United States Antarctic Program. Since 1955, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has assisted in providing air and maritime support throughout the Antarctic continent. This year marks the 63rd iteration of the annual operation. Each year, the Polar Star crew creates a navigable path through seasonal and multi-year ice, sometimes as much as 6m thick, to allow a resupply vessel to reach McMurdo Station. The 13,000-ton displacement Polar Star arrived after completing an 18-mile trip through the ice to McMurdo Sound, where 400 containers will be offloaded from the supply ship Ocean Giant.

Presently, the USCG maintains two icebreakers – the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is a medium icebreaker, and the Polar Star. Protecting national interests in the Polar regions is essential to ensure the Coast Guard’s national defence strategy and search and rescue capabilities are ready for action, but in order to do so, the icebreaker fleet requires modernisation.

Commissioned in 1976, the Polar Star is showing its age. Reserved for Operation Deep Freeze each year, the ship spends the winter breaking ice near Antarctica, and when the mission is complete, returns to dry dock in order to complete critical maintenance and repairs in preparation for the next Operation Deep Freeze mission. During this year’s deployment, one of the ship’s electrical systems began to smoke, causing damage to wiring in an electrical switchboard, and one of the ship’s two evaporators used to make drinkable water failed.

The ship also experienced a leak from the propeller shaft, which halted icebreaking operations in order to send scuba divers in the water to repair the seal. A hyperbaric chamber on loan from the US Navy aboard the ship allows Coast Guard divers to make external emergency repairs and inspections of the ship’s hull. The Polar Star also experienced ship-wide power outages while breaking ice. Crew members spent nine hours shutting down the ship’s power plant and rebooting the electrical system in order to remedy the outages.

If a catastrophic event, such as getting stuck in the ice, were to happen to the Healy in the Arctic or to the Polar Star near Antarctica, the USCG is left without a self-rescue capability. By contrast, Russia currently operates more than 40 icebreakers – several of which are nuclear powered.

The USCG has been the sole provider of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability since 1965, and is seeking to increase its icebreaking fleet with six new Polar Security Cutters in order to ensure continued national presence and access to the Polar Regions.

“While we focus our efforts on creating a peaceful and collaborative environment in the Arctic, we’re also responding to the impacts of increased competition in this strategically important region,” said Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. “Our continued presence will enable us to reinforce positive opportunities and mitigate negative consequences today and tomorrow.”