US commissions VT Halter for heavy icebreaker

The US navy's two operating icebreakers USCGC Healy (pictured), and USCGC Polar Star. Credit: USCG - Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Anderson

At a time when it is expected to see a major shortfall in capacity, the US Coast Guard (USCG) has awarded a USD745 million contract for a heavy icebreaker to Mississippi shipbuilder VT Halter Marine, due to begin construction in 2021.

The contract for the new polar security cutter includes a USD1.9 billion option for two other vessels of the same type. Specifying delivery of the first vessel in 2024, the other two will be delivered in 2027 if the option is exercised, and will be joined by a further three medium icebreakers.

The icebreaker will be the first of its kind in decades, taking over from the severely ageing Polar Star, which was anticipated to stay in operation and maintain capacity until the mid-2020s. This looks increasingly unlikely, however, as faults mount and the vessel routinely breaks down, which yielded a severe electrical fire earlier this year.

High-ranking members of the US Military have stated that a much greater icebreaking capacity is required to match Russia’s fleet, which consists of more than two-dozen capable and well-maintained icebreakers, many of them nuclear-reactor-powered, including the Taymyr, Vaygach, Yamal and 50 Let Pobedy, which are still operational since the Soviet era. One of the vessels might have to be called out to assist Polar Star in the event it broke down in a remote location.

As well as being a capable breaking through ice 10 feet thick, the design of the new icebreaker will incorporate allocated space, weight and electrical capacity and circuitry for weaponry, as an insurance policy in case US-Russian diplomatic relations break down, according to a statement by USCG Commandant Paul Zukunft early last year. The slots will allow the icebreaker to be retrofitted with cruise missiles.

“Against the backdrop of great power competition, the Polar Security Cutter is key to our nation’s presence in the polar regions,” said Adm. Karl L. Schultz, commandant of the Coast Guard. “This contract award marks an important step towards building the nation’s full complement of six polar icebreakers to meet the unique mission demands that have emerged from increased commerce, tourism, research, and international activities in the Arctic and Antarctic.”