The US Coast Guard passed on Arctic Exercise because of fears that the Polar Star icebreaker would break down and would require Russian help, former Coast Guard commandant Admiral Paul F. Zukunft said on December 4th.
It seems that the US is threatened of falling behind in the standoff for the Arctic because of the lack of ice breakers. Especially compared to Russia, which has the world’s largest Arctic coastline, dozens of icebreakers, many of which are heavy polar duty models, others suited to operate in the Baltics.
The US has two, only one of which is a heavy icebreaker and can theoretically operate in the Arctic and Antarctica. That heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, is more than 40 years old and clinging to service life, Zukunft said.
“When I was the commandant, the National Security Council approached me and said, ‘Hey, we ought to send the Polar Star through the Northern Sea Route and do a freedom of navigation exercise,’” the retired Admiral said.
“I said, ‘Au contraire, it’s a 40-year-old ship. We’re cannibalizing parts off its sister ship just to keep this thing running, and I can’t guarantee you that it won’t have an catastrophic engineering casualty as it’s doing a freedom of navigation exercise, and now I’ve got to call on Russia to pull me out of harm’s way. So this is not the time to do it,’” he continued.
The Polar Star is a 42-year-old ship, commissioned in 1976 and refurbished in 2012 and brought back into service. It’s the Coast Guard’s only operational heavy icebreaker, and it can chop through ice up to 21 feet thick. (The Healy, the service’s other icebreaker, is a medium icebreaker that is newer and bigger but has less ice-breaking capability.)
The US Coast Guard had another icebreaker, the Polar Sea, it was also commissioned in 1976, but left service in 2010 due to repeated engine failures.
The service has been stripping the Polar Sea for parts, in order to keep its sister ship, the Polar Star running, because many of the necessary parts are no longer in production.
“When they can’t get it from the Polar Sea, crew members have ordered second-hand parts from eBay.”
The only remaining heavy icebreaker makes annual trips to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. In January 2018 the ship faced less ice and, still, there were mechanical issues. A gas-turbine failed, which reduced power to the propellers and a shaft seal also failed, allowing seawater into the ship, until it was sealed back.
The Polar star goes into drydock every year. Furthermore, it sails with a year’s worth of food in case it gets stuck. When he was commandant, Zukunft said that the icebreaker was “literally on life support.”
The Coast Guard has been looking to start building new icebreakers for some time. In 2016, Zukunft said that the service was looking to build three heavy and three medium icebreakers. It released a joint draft request for proposal with the Navy in October 2017.
“The Homeland Security Department, which oversees the Coast Guard, requested $750 million in fiscal year 2019, which began October 1, to design and build a new heavy polar icebreaker. (That request included $15 million for a service-life extension project for the Polar Star.)”
Thus, the Coast Guard not only received no budget to construct ships, but it also did not receive any funds to extend the life of the Polar Star.
In earlier December, the current Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Karl Schultz said that he was “guardedly optimistic” about funding for a new polar icebreaker.
Even if push comes to shove, Russia has actually helped the US before. In 2012, the Alaskan city of Nome was iced in and a few weeks away from running out of fuel. “At that point in time we were able to call upon Russia to provide an ice-capable tanker escorted by the Coast Guard cutter Healy to resupply Nome.”
Thus, according to the former commandant, the necessity right now of a new icebreaker is not so much about military operations, but rather commercial ones.