Sunday, November 16, 2014


The U.S. Coast Guard's Big Ice Breaker POLAR STAR Works Long Past Retirement Age.. 

 As the Antarctic spring begins and the need to resupply American outposts arises we again find ourselves with only one very ancient heavy duty icebreaker. Fortunately the summer navigation season in the High Arctic passed without incident off of America's Arctic coast, a good thing because we have so little capability of acting in the Arctic. Below is the rundown on our ice breaking capacity.

 The USCGC POLAR STAR at 38 years old is about 18 years past normal retirement age for a ship subjected to arduous duty. She is 8 years past her last scheduled retirement. Unfortunately, despite the growing importance of the High Arctic region to the national interests of the United States  Few Duties are more arduous than breaking thick Arctic and Antarctic Ice. Yet she is back underway today after her latest service life extension repairs. By late january the CGC POLAR STAR will be fully engaged in her key annual mission breaking through Southern Hemisphere ice to open the channel to the U.S. McMurdo Research  Station in Antarctica.  U.S. interests in the Antarctic and High Arctic have never been greater and Coast Guard funding never been lower in proportion to the service's growing list of missions. The POLAR STAR has 75,000 horsepower. Its hull is strong enough  to batter through six feet of ice at running speed. While the Coast Guard has the newer ice capable ship ALEX HEALY and other ice capable tugs,  Polar Star is the only operational U.S. vessel capable of getting the food, fuel and research material to the two Antarctic research stations. If the stations could not be resupplied by ship, research personnel would have to be severely reduced. In the past when the POLAR STAR was down for repairs the U.S. chartered Russian icebreakers for the task, sending millions of U.S. dollars to a basically unfriendly Russian government.

 This year let us hope the aging ship does not fail. The POLAR STAR's equally old sister ship the POLAR SEA has been down with engine problems since 2010 and some say while not decommissioned yet she is actually being cannibalized for parts to keep the POLAR STAR going. The Coast Guard's only other seagoing  ice breaker is the CGC ALEX HALEY a medium endurance ice breaker meant for Arctic work. The National Science Foundation has a light endurance ice breaker. The Russians already laying claim to the entire Arctic Ocean and can move around it at will being in possession of 18 icebreakers, four of which are nuclear powered heavy duty types. Russia has already announced the construction of yet another heavy icebreaker to help supply Russia's growing Arctic military presence and to lead Russian warships into the ice flows.

 Frankly without U.S. heavy icebreakers control of the Arctic belongs to Russia. The Arctic is thought to hold more than 10% of the global undiscovered oil reserves, one third of undiscovered gas reserves, and is a strategically critical region for U.S. security. Yet despite the fact that the nation's sole remaining operational heavy icebreaker could break down from old age at any moment there are no replacement plans. It has been estimated that a replacement for the POLAR STAR could run over one billion dollars. Certainly built in the U.S. as is the norm for U.S. military vessels that is a conservative estimate.We think it is time to think outside the box. Every Arctic and Antarctic mission doesn't require the capacity of the POLAR STAR. There are a number of small 1600 to 2,000 gross ton icebreaking offshore supply / service vessels available for sale at used prices of only a few million dollars on the world market. Time to drop the purpose built in America rule and pick up several of these in serviceable condition. They will be grossly inadequate for some POLAR STAR missions but more than adequate for others. Once painted in the USCG colors and operational we should look for a relatively lightly used heavy ice breaker actually capable of heavy operations, these can be had for a hundred million dollars or more but still a total budget outlay of one billion dollars spread over several years in the used ship market might put four or more ice breakers of varying capabilities into the Coast Guard fleet. And let us not forget icebreaking tugs as U.S.commercial endeavors pick up in the High Arctic these smaller ice capable ships may be the busiest in the Coast Guard fleet.

 American Arctic researchers worry that the growing differences between the Russian and U.S. governments over Ukraine, Syria and other foreign-policy matters are increasing doubts about the Russia-U.S. logistical cooperation in science that bloomed after the Cold War. Renting or relying on Russian icebreakers is a threat to our sovereignty in our own Arctic Exclusive Economic Zone. Its time for some pragmatism, lets allocate a billion dollars to the U.S. Coast Guard for used ice breakers over the next 36 to 42 months. We can worry about building the biggest and best heavy duty icebreaker in an American yard once we get our economy back and have re-established basic ice breaking capacity and capabilities.
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