- The Coast Guard and Navy have released a draft joint request for proposals to design and build a heavy icebreaker.
- Melting ice has raised interest in shipping, mining, and other activities in Arctic and Antarctic waters.
- The US has two operational icebreakers, far fewer than what other countries, including Russia, can field.
The US Navy and Coast Guard released a joint draft request for proposal for a heavy polar icebreaker on Thursday — another signal the US military is jockeying keep up with activity in increasingly busy Arctic and Antarctic waters.
The request is for the “Detail, Design and Construction” of one heavy polar icebreaker cutter with the option for two more. Responses are due by December 11.
According to the announcement, the eventual contract is likely to include a number of services relating to operations and maintenance, including materials and spare parts, engineering industrial services, special studies for government-directed engineering tasks, and crew familiarization.
The draft of the request is released to give advance notice for proposals and allow for more sophisticated designs to be submitted. The government said it expects to release the official request for proposal during the first three months of 2018.
Melting sea ice has opened Arctic and Antarctic waters to commercial traffic and mining operations, but ice there still poses a risk to vessels.
Coast Guard Command Adm. Paul Zufunft said in early 2016 that the US needed icebreakers in Antarctica to support national-security infrastructure there. In May, Zufunkt told a House committee that the Coast Guard needed to maintain a “persistent presence” in the Arctic and Antarctic.
He said the service was working to design three heavy and three medium polar icebreakers and could increase that order or add offensive weapons to the ships if conditions in their area of operations change.
The proposed Coast Guard budget for fiscal year 2018 asked for $19 million to acquire a new polar icebreaker it wants to start building in fiscal year 2019, which runs from October 2018 to September 2019.
The first heavy icebreaker is expected to be delivered in 2023, according to USNI News.
The US icebreaker fleet is relatively small. The Coast Guard has three ships — two of which are operational — and the National Science Foundation has another.
Two of the Coast Guard’s ships, the Polar Star and Polar Sea, are some of the world’s most powerful nonnuclear icebreakers, capable of breaking through up to 6 feet of ice at a speed of three knots. But the Polar Sea, which entered service in 1978 with a 30-year service life, is not currently operational. The Polar Star, launched in 1976 with a 30-year service life, was refurbished in 2012 for continued operations.
The Healy, the Coast Guard’s third icebreaker, is a medium icebreaker that entered service in 2000 to complement the Polar Star and Polar Sea. It is bigger in size than those two ships but has less icebreaking capability.
The Nathaniel B. Palmer, built for the NSF in 1992, is much smaller than the Coast Guard’s ships and focuses on scientific research.
A number of countries have more icebreakers at sea.
Russia has more than 40 in its inventory, including four operational heavy icebreakers and six medium icebreakers. Finland has seven, though they’re privately owned medium or light icebreakers. Sweden and Canada each have six, though neither has a heavy icebreaker.
Moscow’s activity in the Arctic has been a US concern for some time.
“We’re not even in the same league as Russia right now,” Zukunft reportedly said in July 2015. “We’re not playing in this game at all.”
Russia state-owned media has said the country’s Northern Fleet has added or upgraded surface ships with the goal of phasing “NATO out of the Arctic.” State-owned media has also reported that Moscow plans to build military research and testing facilities in the Arctic.
The Russia build-up in the region is its biggest since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Reuters reported in January, citing experts and government documents.
China, which only has one light icebreaker in service, also has Arctic ambitions. That ship, the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, recently traversed the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It has also traveled through the Central Arctic Route and the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s Arctic coast.
“Polar regions … have become new but strategic areas where China is seeking to develop in the future,” Wang Chuanxing, a polar researcher at Tongji University in Shanghai, told The South China Morning Post this month.
Beijing also plans to launch a medium icebreaker in the near future.
“I don’t know what the long-range plan is — you know what is China’s vision for an Arctic strategy,” Zukunft said this summer. “Beyond the global commons, where are those lines drawn and will it encroach upon the sovereign interest of the United States? I can’t answer that question so obviously that does cause me great concern.”