The United States Cost Guard utilizes a series of watercraft to conduct safeguarding, supplying, and security activities. These Coast Guard ships are referred to as cutters. The term was once reserved for small sailing ships but today is used to identify any vessel of 65 feet in length or greater with a permanently assigned crew and extended support accommodations.
One type of Coast Guard cutter that’s received recent attention is the icebreaker. These ships are designed to cut through ice-blocked waterways thanks to a specially designed, reinforced hull and high-power propulsion system. Apart from cutting through pack-ice, these Coast Guard boats efficiently direct broken ice away from the hull and exposed propulsion components, preventing build-up that would otherwise easily damage or destroy critical parts of a vessel.
The current fleet of marine-based icebreaker Coast Guard boats consists of just two dedicated icebreaker vessels: the USCGC Polar Star and the USCGC Healy. At 46 years old and 26 years old, respectively, both the Polar Star and the Healy are well past their prime.
Demands for a new generation of icebreakers have been high, especially as rival militaries strengthen their presence in the Arctic. The Polar Security Cutter program aims to answer that demand and surpass coast guard requirements for a robust, icebreaking fleet.
Seeking A New Generation Of Icebreaker Coast Guard Boats
Since its launch in 2012, the Polar Security Cutter program seeks to replace the Polar Star and Healy with new icebreaker Coast Guard cutter ships known as PSCs. In 2016, the Coast Guard began working with the U.S. Navy to draw from the shipbuilding expertise behind numerous US naval patrol boats and other vessels.
As of 2019, Mississippi-based shipbuilder, VT Halter Marine Inc. has been contracted to design and build the lead PSC as well as a second ship. The first new vessel, to be dubbed the USCGC Polar Sentinel, was slated to enter service in 2025. But per recent assessments, and with a detailed design still to be finalized, the first of a new generation of heavy icebreakers may not enter waters until 2027.
In the meantime, the Polar Star and the Healy will remain in operation through at least the latter half of this decade. Annual fixes are planned to help extend the life of these important cutters. The Polar Star in particular will be able to remain operational only by using spare parts from its sister ship, the Polar Sea, which has been out of service since 2010.
As a further stop-gap, Congress is expected to authorize $150 million to outfit a medium-sized commercial icebreaker to meet Coast Guard requirements, enabling it to provide adequate support for polar icebreaking missions within the next two years. The performance of the modified commercial icebreaker may inform the design of future ships of comparable size, also called Arctic Security Cutters.
An Icebreaking Coast Guard Cutter For Domestic Waters
Breaking through the frozen waters in the Arctic and Antarctic is a requirement for defense, supply, and research in international waters, but the need for heavy icebreakers is also a domestic affair. The Great Lakes are vital waterways for commerce and keeping them open during the coldest months is a multimillion-dollar necessity.
The Mackinaw, a 240-foot Great Lakes class Coast Guard cutter is specifically designed to open and maintain vital shipping lanes. The ship is also used for search-and-rescue, law enforcement, and other missions.
The Mackinaw is the only heavy vessel and one of just seven icebreakers of an aging fleet. Not unlike the Polar Star and the Healy situation, the need for additional and more modern vessels is becoming urgent.
The call for updated icebreaking capacity in the Great Lakes has been recently answered within an $858 billion defense bill that was authorized late in 2022. $350 million of that amount will go to a new heavy Great Lakes icebreaker.
The funding authorization is a major step toward ensuring commerce and security in the region, but the new ship’s design, shipyard, and other details are still far from being determined. All things considered, it’s expected to be a years-long process before any new additions to the Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet become operational.