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Cutting a Lonely Path: The Coast Guard's Heavy Icebreaker in the Arctic

Cutting a Lonely Path: The Coast Guard's Heavy Icebreaker in the Arctic
The U.S. Coast Guard’s Polar Star cuts through the ice. (Photo by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen/USCG)

(This article originally appeared in Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)

Melting ice, with its resulting loss of thousands of square miles up north off the Arctic ice cap, has transformed the Arctic into a hub of activity: oil and mineral exploitation, shipping, fishing, and tourism. Correspondingly, Coast Guard polar icebreaking, underfunded for decades, has attracted more political support and budget dollars today than at any other time in recent memory.

Every summer, the Coast Guard sends more and more assets to the Arctic for Operation Arctic Shield. Cutters and aircraft conduct safety and security operations and deepen ties with other federal and Alaskan agencies, as well as with tribal communities. Search and rescue is becoming increasingly critical as more recreational boats and cruise lines transit the Northwest Passage.

Only a polar icebreaker can provide year-round access to the Arctic. But U.S. icebreaking capabilities to support national economic and security goals in waters increasingly accessible and rich with resources are strikingly limited. And unlike in Antarctica, the U.S. has sovereign territory to protect and more reason to show its presence.

“The demand is there,” says Cmdr. Kenneth Boda, chief of icebreaking and aids to navigation at USCG Headquarters. “We don't have the resources to meet that demand today.”

The Coast Guard has three heavy icebreakers. Mackinaw (WLBB-30) only operates on the Great Lakes. Polar Sea (WAGB-11) hasn't been operational since 2010. Instead, it's cannibalized, used by Polar Star (WAGB-10) for its spare parts. Deactivated for three years, Polar Star only resumed operations in late 2013 after $57 million in repairs. It's gone a decade past its projected service life of 30 years, but the Coast Guard needs it to operate at least through 2023.

The Coast Guard also possesses one medium icebreaker, Healy (WAGB-20). Commissioned in 2000, it's the only other cutter capable of polar icebreaking. Twenty-one feet longer and 3,000 tons heavier than Polar Star, Healy has less powerful engines and less icebreaking capability; it's used primarily to support scientific research.

Russia, meanwhile, has six heavy icebreakers and a total icebreaking fleet of 46 ships.

A Compromised Mission

Capt. Michael Davanzo, USCG, was commander of Polar Star for two years, until June, and he's proud of the 42-year-old ship's singular status. However, due to its age and the battering it has taken in harsh environments, the icebreaker has become a maintenance migraine for its crew.

Polar Star limped through its most recent deployment to Antarctica to cut a channel through a 15-mile ice field and escort two ships - an oiler and cargo vessel - to resupply scientists at McMurdo Station, a U.S. research center. The cutter battled a series of mechanical breakdowns. Reports reaching headquarters were sufficiently worrisome that Adm. Paul Zukunft, then commandant, said the icebreaker was “literally on life support.”

Polar Star and its 130-person crew left their Seattle homeport Dec. 1 to ensure it would reach the ice edge of McMurdo Sound between Jan. 8-10. Any later arrival “makes it very challenging to get the channel ready [and] finish the mission before the winds start changing,” Davanzo says.

The icebreaker did arrive on schedule. But on Jan. 11, halfway through its first cut into McMurdo Station, one of Polar Star's 25,000-horsepower turbines stopped due to a faulty communication link between upgraded engine electronics and the ship's aged electric wiring.

The cutter stayed on mission, breaking ice at a slower pace. But five days later, the watertight seal on its centerline propeller shaft failed. Twenty gallons of seawater a minute gushed into engineering spaces until an emergency seal was deployed. By then, the ship had lost two days of icebreaking. If the ice blocking McMurdo had been 70 miles, as during last year's deployment, Davanzo says, “it would have been really bad.”

Also, if the seal weren't repairable or another major casualty occurred, Davanzo says the 390-foot cutter might have been stuck in its ice track and needed to winter over. Two-thirds of its crew would have been evacuated to McMurdo to fly home from there.

Polar Star managed to complete a sufficiently wide channel using two turbines and one of three backup diesel engines, and it escorted the ships to McMurdo's ice pier to offload. Outbound, however, the starboard turbine failed, forcing Polar Star to break away for a time from escort duties. Later, after resuming its role, “we had a pipe rupture and flooding in the bilge,” says Davanzo. “We had to cancel the escort just so we could figure out what [we had].”

“I'm really proud of the crew and the incredible job they did to keep us going,” he continues. “But if we couldn't fix that [seal], it could have been pretty challenging for the National Science Foundation [team] and for our presence in Antarctica.”

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“We've kept [Polar Star] up and running for a long time, but we're finding it's a struggle getting repair parts,” reflects Boda, who several years ago served as executive officer on the icebreaker.

Lt. Spencer Ross, its assistant engineering officer, holds a fuse in his hand the size of sleeve of golf balls - 50-year-old technology. The ship's diesel electric propulsion system, Ross says, needs a lot of these rectifier fuses to convert power efficiently. Because the ship's systems were not calibrated properly on reactivation, a lot of these fuses have blown. When Polar Star's crew couldn't find any replacements on Polar Sea, or from Coast Guard or Navy stock systems or from local contacts in Seattle, the crew searched on eBay. They found an electrical shop that had a couple of boxes of these old fuses and arranged to buy them all.

Davanzo holds up a circuit board, pulled from one of three wide cabinets that are the propellers' computers. Each cabinet controls a propeller's pitch. Each drawer in the cabinets has 32 of these circuit boards. Polar Star pulled replacement boards from Polar Sea for years, but there aren't any more. So today, ship electronic technicians have to repair each bad board with replacement components and soldering tools. The board
Davanzo holds has a date on it: 1972.

The Coast Guard has a surprising number of cutters older than Polar Star. None of them, however, endures the pounding that a heavy icebreaker does during 20,000-mile roundtrip deployments to Antarctica, Davanzo says.

Polar Star's rounded hull, designed to slide atop ice, forfeits stability at sea. Half of the crew will be seasick in transit, and “with a full roller,” Davanzo says, watch standers “literally are walking up [and down] hills.”

When the ship reaches the ice, loud noise and vibration replace the rolling. Its crew compares the sensation to an earthquake or rumble strips on a highway.

“Imagine feeling that vibration 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while we have that ice,” Davanzo says. “Screws are falling from the overheads. Things are loose and rattling. [Pipes break.] So, yeah, this ship just ages faster,” he says.

Davanzo calls Polar Star “a very maintenance-intensive cutter. But if you don't do the maintenance, we won't get to the finish line [of 2023].”

When an engineer gets orders to Polar Star, says Ross, “there's no school or training program. ... It's a very unique ship. A lot of people spend a lot of time making it run.”

The Future of U.S. Icebreaking Efforts

Given these challenges, the Coast Guard's parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, identified a requirement for three heavy and three medium polar icebreakers to support future missions in “the high latitudes.” To respond, the Coast Guard launched an icebreaker acquisition program in 2013. By fall 2015, then-President Barack Obama ordered it accelerated. Obama said the U.S. needed at least one heavy icebreaker operating year-round in both polar regions to support U.S. economic interests, monitor international activity, and reduce environmental risks to the pristine Arctic.

The Coast Guard will continue to rely on Healy for Arctic summer deployments and on Polar Star for astral summer deployments “to do the break out” at McMurdo Station, Boda says. If within the next five years the U.S. needs to expand icebreaking in the Arctic, Polar Star would be rerouted there.

The Coast Guard began to engage industry in its acquisition effort in 2016, releasing operational requirements and reviewing designs ideas. Also that year, the Navy and Coast Guard formed an integrated icebreaker acquisition program to apply best practices of both departments. In 2017, it began working with five U.S. shipyards to identify engineering production concerns and refine ship specifications. It also began to test ship models in ice and open water.

In March, the Navy and Coast Guard released a request for proposals for advance procurement and detail design of the first new heavy icebreaker in decades, with options to build two more. Proposals were due in July, and the Coast Guard expects to select a design and shipbuilder in 2019.

Congress will have the final say on the pace of icebreaker procurement. The past two years, it provided $359.6 million in funding, including $300 million from the Navy's shipbuilding account. The Coast Guard's 2019 budget seeks an additional $750 million, enough to fully fund the first ship and partially pay for a second. The acquisition team estimates three heavy icebreakers can be built for a total of $2.1 billion.

The new icebreaker will be more efficient, more maneuverable, and more comfortable than Polar Star and loaded with state-of-the-art sensors and communication gear to expand domain awareness wherever it operates. Davanzo also hopes it is vastly quieter, more stable, and far easier to maintain.

Technologies already being installed on newer cutter classes are state-of-the-market and should work fine aboard a new icebreaker, with modifications for Arctic cold. This will ensure commonality and dampen construction costs, says Ahmed Majumder, deputy program manager for the heavy polar icebreaker program.

The best icebreakers all have been designed by foreign firms. By law, a U.S. shipbuilder must win the Coast Guard contract, but it likely will partner with foreign designers on hull form, propulsion, and other features.

One big advance in propulsion for icebreaking has been azimuth thrusters with dual propellers that are “podded” or protected in steel housings. The pods troll off backs of ships and can rotate 360 degrees, compared with conventional fixed shafts and rudders that turn ships only 30 degrees left or right. Mackinaw, commissioned in 2006, was the Coast Guard's first cutter with “AzidPod” propulsion.

Polar Star has controllable pitch propellers. Following every deployment, it must go into drydock to have propeller hubs removed, inspected, and either replaced or rebuilt. It's a costly, time-consuming requirement and particularly difficult on its crew, which always faces a long yearly deployment.

Adm. Paul Zukunft, who retired June 1, says the new icebreaker should have the space, weight, and electrical power to accommodate the option of adding offensive weapons. Russia reportedly plans to add cruise missiles to some of its icebreakers. The commandant emphasized, however, the current strategy is to cooperate with Russia on “soft missions” in the Arctic, including search and rescue.

A new icebreaker won't need more icebreaking capability than Polar Star, which remains one of the world's most powerful. The Coast Guard wants the new ship to match Polar Star's ability to break six feet of ice at three knots moving forward and to break 21 feet of ridged ice by backing and ramming.

Majumder says the new ship will be more stable at sea for the launching of helicopters or small boats. Other performance parameters are to operate without resupply for at least 80 days.

For Davanzo, the biggest change should be better maintainability. Polar Star requires constant maintenance. The engineers and warrant officers responsible for engines and propellers are invaluable, so they get little time off. Between deployments and drydock periods, some of them spend more than eight months away from their families.

Help is on the way for the U.S. Coast Guard's icebreaking fleet, but given the pace of modern shipbuilding, that wait will be five to six years.

“We are very confident we can deliver an icebreaker by 2023,” says Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Zamarin, who reviews program funding for the Coast Guard's budget office. “That is what we need to ensure our continued presence in the polar regions, to defend our sovereignty, and to do all those multimission things we are required to do as a coast guard.”