U.S. Coast Guard Receives Funding for New Heavy Icebreaker

Polar Star (file image courtesy USCG)

Published Feb 15, 2019 10:02 PM by The Maritime Executive

The compromise federal funding package that President Donald Trump signed into law on Friday has received attention for its passage - which averted a second government shutdown - and for the relative shortage of border security funding in its 1,100-plus pages. It also contains significant good news for the Coast Guard, which received $655 million to build one heavy icebreaker and $20 million in long-lead-time funding for a second, according to USNI News. 

As part of the budget deal finalized this week, Congress appropriated $2.25 billion in capital expenditures for Coast Guard shore facilities, vessels, ATON and aircraft. This is slightly more than the Department of Homeland Security's FY2019 budget proposal, which requested $1.9 billion, including $750 million for one icebreaker. Before the shutdown in December, the Senate version of the DHS appropriations bill included the icebreaker, but the House version did not, putting priority on funding a border wall instead. After the shutdown, the balance appears to have shifted in favor of the Senate's bill - putting the Coast Guard on a path to replace an aging platform with significant reliability problems.

The Coast Guard has one remaining heavy icebreaker, the 1976-built Polar Star. She is among the most capable vessels of her type, with enough power to break through ice of up to 21 feet thick, but she is now well past her designed service life. In her 2018 icebreaking season, she suffered a shaft seal failure leading to flooding, along with an electronic control failure that took out one of her three turbines. This year, one of her electrical systems began to smoke, causing damage to wiring in an electrical switchboard, and one of her evaporators failed. Like last year, she also experienced a leak from a shaft seal, which halted icebreaking operations until scuba divers could make repairs. 

The Star's sister ship, Polar Sea, left service in 2010 after a catastrophic engine failure. She now serves as a parts donor to sustain the Star's Cold War-era systems. The Coast Guard has noted that it has no self-rescue capability in the event that the Star should suffer a similar breakdown in heavy ice. 

Given these vulnerabilities and the increasing need for a U.S. national security presence in the Arctic, the Coast Guard hopes to build three heavy and three medium medium icebreakers. Its ambition is to deliver the first heavy icebreaker - rebranded as the "Polar Security Cutter" - by 2023.