The US Coast Guard has quietly pushed back when it expects to receive its first new heavy-duty icebreaker, also known as the Polar Security Cutter, or PSC, from 2024 to 2025. This raises questions as to whether the ship will be ready before the USCGC North Star, the only operational heavy icebreaker currently available to the service, is reaching the end of its viable life, even after a planned major overhaul. The Coast Guard’s overall icebreaking capability has become an increasingly pressing national security issue in recent years, in large part due to the growing strategic importance of the Arctic region and the potential for conflict therein. .
It is not known when the delivery schedule for the PSC was delayed. A review of archived copies of the Coast Guard official site because the program shows that the date has been updated there between September 27th and September 29th. Admiral Karl Schultz, Commander of the Coast Guard, had not included a scheduled date of any kind for when he expected the first of them to be delivered in his prepared remarks during a service readiness hearing in April. The year before he had said that the first of these icebreakers could potentially be ready in 2023.
The US Navy, which manages the program with the Coast Guard, awarded the first contract for the main PSC to VT Halter Marine in 2019, when the target was to take delivery of the vessel in 2024. It was already a . one year behind the original schedule, which called for the arrival of three PSCs in 2023, 2025 and 2026, respectively. According to the Navy and Coast Guard, “financial incentives for earlier delivery” were then and continue to be included in this agreement.
there was already signs of a new delay earlier this year, based on the apparent slippage in the schedule for when the first steel would be cut for the ship. This stage marks the very beginning of the actual construction of a ship. As of this week, however, the first PSC is “still in the design phase” and VT Halter Marine “is working to complete the work necessary to begin construction,” according to a Coast Guard statement. given Arctic today. This outlet was among the first to note that the service had started saying that 2025, rather than 2024, was now the expected delivery date.
It is not known which problem (s) may be responsible for the new delay. The Coast Guard and Navy had sought to keep costs and schedule risks low by considering PSCs based on relatively mature parenting designs. VT Halter Marine’s offer was derived from a planned vessel, the Polarstern II, an ice capable research vessel planned for the German government. However, this program was plunged into uncertainty last year, the German authorities cancellation of the call for tenders on legal issues.
“To what extent was Polarstern IIs design developed when it was used as the parent design to develop the PSC design? How much Polarstern IIthe detailed design and construction plan were complete by that time? âthe Congressional Research Service asked potential questions of U.S. lawmakers in its latest report on the PSC program, released in October, which did not include any mention of the latest delay. “How closely is the design of the PSC linked to Polarstern IIdesign ? How many changes have been made to Polarstern IIthe design to develop the design of the PSC? What were these changes and what technical, timing and cost risks, if any, could result from them? “
It was reported in january that VT Halter Marine was still preparing to begin construction of the first PSC. It is expected to be one of the heaviest ships ever built by its yard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, which required new infrastructure capable of supporting that weight.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a congressional watchdog, had raised concerns about the potential for delays in the PSC program, including simply due to the general complexities of shipbuilding, in its own report in 2018. GAO had also warned that such schedule slips would increase the risk that the Coast Guard would be left without heavy operational icebreakers. At this time, the USCGC North Star was due to be withdrawn in 2020 in the absence of plans for a major lifespan extension effort.
In January, the Coast Guard announced that it had awarded a contract, valued at up to $ 119.6 million, to Mare Island Dry Dock, LLC, of ââVallejo, Calif., to conduct a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) review of the North Star. The expectation, based on the requirements set by Congress in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for fiscal 2021, is that this will keep the ship in service at least. until the end of 2025.
The problem here is that North Star, which first entered service in 1976 and has become very difficult to operate and maintain, will still have to be out of service for at least some time while SLEP work is being performed and there is no heavy icebreaker to replace it. Its sister ship, the USCGC Polar sea, remains in stock, but has not been operational since 2010 and is today only a source of spare parts. The Coast Guard also has a single medium icebreaker, the USCGC Healy, but it has more limited capacities compared to the North Star.
Another Coast Guard icebreaker, USCGC Mackinaw, is limited to operations on the Great Lakes and is not included in the own accounts of the âlarge icebreakersâ service in service around the world. Various agencies elsewhere within the United States government have also used vessels that may be owned and operated by contractors in the past.
“By replacing obsolete, unbearable or high-maintenance equipment, the Coast Guard will mitigate the risk of loss of operational days due to unscheduled maintenance or system failures,” the service said when announcing the contract. SLEP earlier this year. âOutsourced SLEP work items and recurring maintenance will take place under an annual production schedule spanning five years from 2021 to 2025. Each phase will be coordinated so that operational commitments such as Deep Freeze operation are always respected. “
Operation Freezing is the nickname for US military support for US government activities in Antarctica.
In June 2020, then-President Donald Trump ordered the Coast Guard to explore the possibility of purchasing nuclear-powered icebreakers, a type of vessel that only Russia currently operates. The following month, Trump suggested there were new plans to acquire 10 more icebreakers from an unspecified source. Whether this is true or not, nothing has emerged since then to indicate that anyone has seriously pursued such a proposal.
The video below shows the Russian nuclear powered icebreaker Arktika, which is currently the largest icebreaker of any kind in the world.