The Polar Sea heavy icebreaker that the U.S. Coast Guard plans to mothball is in excellent condition and could be returned to active service in two years, giving the government a decade or more to search for longer-term solutions, a representative of America’s shipyards told Congress last week.
The United States currently has no active heavy icebreakers and only one medium vessel to protect rapidly intensifying national security and economic interests in the Arctic and Antarctic.
“We must have the capability to complete the vital missions our polar icebreakers have performed for decades,” said David Whitcomb, speaking for the Shipbuilders Council of America, told the House Transportation subcommittee on the Coast Guard in a hearing on Dec. 1. Whitcomb is chief operating officer of Vigor Industrial, whose subsidiary Vigor Shipyards
is restoring the Polar Star icebreaker even as the Coast Guard moves to mothball the nearly identical Polar Sea sister ship docked nearby.
“We do believe there is a need to build new heavy icebreakers, and we urge Congress and the Administration to work together to quickly authorize and fund such a project,” Whitcomb testified. But, he added, “for just over 1 percent of the cost of a new vessel, and at a two-year versus ten-year minimum horizon, the United States of America would have a second fully functioning heavy icebreaker able to complete vital missions under our own flag for at least a decade or more. “The hulls and frames of the Polar Star and the Polar Sea are perfectly sound and capable,” Whitcomb added. He estimated it would take $11 million to replace Polar Sea’s engine and bring the icebreaker to an operational level.
The vessel was extensively overhauled in recent years, so other additional upgrades would be minimal, retired Coast Guard icebreaker commanding officer Rear Adm. Jeffrey Garrett told the committee. Rep. Don Young (R-AK) and ranking member Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) both expressed pleasant surprise that a quick and inexpensive interim solution could be available while Congress, the Administration and the Coast Guard debate and try to fund a ten-year, billion-dollar project to design and build or even find and lease an entirely new icebreaker.
“I’m happy to hear that,” Rep. Young said. “If all it takes is $11 million, that’s not even a spit drop.”
Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp told the subcommittee that his agency recognizes the urgent need, even if he disagrees with some on the best way forward.
“Our challenge today is to ensure we’re working to meet our new and emerging responsibilities in the Arctic region as capably as we’ve performed our long-established missions in existing areas of operation,” Adm. Papp said.
Restoring the icebreakers “is an affordable, proven, prompt and practical alternative that should not be squandered,” Whitcomb said. Action is needed now, Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell told the committee. “Other Arctic and non-Arctic nations are seeing this,” he said. “America is missing the boat.”