The operational polar icebreaking fleet currently includes one 399-foot heavy icebreaker (Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, commissioned in 1976) and one 420-foot medium icebreaker (Coast Guard Cutter Healy, commissioned in 2000). These cutters are designed for open-water icebreaking and feature reinforced hulls, specially angled bows and a system that allows for rapid shifting of ballast to use the cutters’ weight to provide leverage when ramming thick ice.
The Coast Guard also has a second heavy icebreaker, Polar Sea, which was placed in commissioned, inactive status by the service in 2011.
With commerce and traffic in the Arctic increasing, including petrochemical exploration and fisheries, the United States has vital national interests in this region. The ability to provide robust polar icebreaking capability will ensure continued year-round access to these waters and project a sovereign presence. This program will facilitate the Coast Guard’s ability to continue to support this important mission by recapitalizing existing icebreakers which have exceeded their original design service lives. Mission requirements dictate that the service maintain heavy icebreaking capability.
Polar Star underwent a three-year reactivation and returned to operations in late 2013. Since then, Polar Star has completed two Operation Deep Freeze deployments to resupply McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The Coast Guard expects Polar Star to remain in service through approximately 2020 to 2023.
The Coast Guard is addressing the need for future icebreaking capability through an ongoing acquisition. A new, heavy polar icebreaker will be designed to meet the requirements of multiple government stakeholders that require access to and presence within the polar regions. In order to appropriately fund the acquisition of a new polar icebreaker, a “whole-of-government” funding approach is necessary to acquire this national asset.