Expert Report

Polar Icebreaker Roles and U.S. Future Needs: A Preliminary Assessment (2005)

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The age and condition of the U.S. Coast Guard's polar icebreakers are jeopardizing national security and scientific research in the Arctic and Antarctic, according to an interim report from the National Academies. Because of a shortfall in funding for U.S. polar icebreaking activities, long-term maintenance on these icebreakers has been deferred over the past several years, making the ships inefficient to operate and their technological systems outdated. Congress asked the National Academies to provide a comprehensive assessment of the current and future roles of U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreakers in supporting U.S. operations in the Antarctic and the Arctic, including scenarios for continuing those operations and alternative approaches, the changes in roles and missions of polar icebreakers in the support of all national priorities in the polar regions, and potential changes in the roles of U.S Coast Guard icebreakers in the Arctic that may develop due to environmental change. This brief interim report highlights the most urgent and time-dependent issues, and a final report, expected to be released next summer, will examine the type and number of icebreaking ships that the U.S. requires in the long term and other issues.

Key Messages

  • Because of the geographic location of Alaska, the United States is an Arctic nation with significant geo-political, security, economic, and scientific interests in the Arctic, and U.S. interests must be protected in this region.
  • Currently, only one U.S. Coast Guard heavy icebreaker, the POLAR STAR, is capable of supporting the re-supply operation in Antarctica.
  • Having been given budget authority over the icebreaking program, the NSF is now fiscally responsible for missions outside its core mission and expertise. Without budget authority, the U.S. Coast Guard has been put in a situation in which it has the role of operating a ship for which it does not have full management control.
  • Significant long-term maintenance of the heavy icebreakers has been deferred over the past several years. This, coupled with the lack of a plan for replacement or refurbishment of the nation's icebreaking ships, has put meeting national needs in the north and south (as outlined above) at risk.
  • The need for icebreaking in the Antarctic is primarily a result of a succession of national policy statements and Presidential Decision Directives, which assert that the United States has strategic interests in the Antarctic related to foreign policy and security, environmental protection and scientific research.
  • The two existing heavy icebreakers, POLAR STAR and POLAR SEA, have operated in both polar regions for 29 and 28 years, respectively, and are near the ends of their design service lives. Both ships are inefficient to operate because they now require substantial and increasing maintenance efforts to keep vital ship systems operating, and their technological systems are becoming increasingly obsolete.