Brennan: Arctic needs heavy icebreakers

By Tom Brennan |

President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan should put the hammer down on the Coast Guard for the foolish decision to keep its heavy icebreakers away from the Arctic.

For reasons known only to bureaucrats, the Coast Guard insists on assigning its heavy icebreakers to the Antarctic, far from United States shores, leaving America’s only Arctic state, Alaska, with limited ice operations capability. Russia and China, by contrast, are developing significant vessel capability and experience for operations in the frozen Arctic Ocean. 

Private cruise ships are already operating in the Arctic and in 2016 the American liner Crystal Serenity carried passengers, many of them Alaskans, from Seward through the Northwest Passage to New York City.

President Trump has a potential role to play in resolving the priorities issue because a memorandum signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 authorizes the National Science Foundation to reach out to federal agencies for support of the U.S. Antarctic Program. The NSF gets first choice in such things.

The nation’s heavy icebreaker capability, which consists entirely of the 399-foot Polar Star, is assigned to escort the two cargo vessels and one tanker that support the NSF research facility at McMurdo Station on the edge of Antarctica, the frozen continent at the bottom of the world. The Polar Star typically steams south shortly after Thanksgiving and returns to Seattle in March.

The only other icebreaker in the fleet, the 420-foot Healy, is a medium-class ice-capable vessel. It supports Arctic research and spent four months in the Arctic Ocean last year. The Healy’s capabilities are far more limited than the Polar Star because of its lighter weight. The Polar Star and the Healy are both home-ported in Seattle — the city many Alaskans consider practically next door to Anchorage.

Right now the Polar Star is scheduled to be replaced in five years by a 420-foot heavy icebreaker now under construction. Its cost will be $750 million and it is expected to take on the Polar Star’s mission in the Antarctic.

Sullivan is in a unique position to get Coast Guard attention and has already rattled the Guard’s chain. He is chairman of the Security Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

“I write the Coast Guard bill,” Sullivan told a group of editors and reporters this week. “We’ll see.” He added: “I think we’re too focused on Antarctica and not focused on our own sovereign interests here.”

The new heavy icebreaker is already committed to the Antarctic and the Polar Star might need refitting before it could be assigned to Arctic duty, but ships can last for many years if they are properly maintained. Right now the Polar Star seems destined for retirement, though there might be a possibility it could continue in service if appropriately refurbished. 

Even if the Polar Star does retire, there are two other heavy icebreakers in the works. A budget bill passed last February included $655 million in full funding for a new Polar-class icebreaker and included $20 million to get the ball rolling on building a second one.

Senator Dan Sullivan might just want to say to the Coast Guard: “About those icebreakers…”

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