The Icebreaker Crisis in the USCG as of 2012

During World War 2, the US Navy and Coast Guard fought what is known as “The Weather War” in which small ice-strengthened US ships searched for German Weather installations in Greenland, Iceland, Canada, and other frozen points above the Arctic Circle. On the opposite side of the world, the same types of ships were needed to patrol the northern pacific to maintain defense over Alaska. Most Americans forget (if they ever knew) that the Alaskan islands of Attu and Kiska were invaded by the Japanese military in 1942 and retained for almost two years. After WWII, the US military found itself still very much in need of an arctic and Antarctic presence, now that the USSR was only a skip and a jump away over the North Pole.

Today, with the Northwest Passage increasingly viable and fuel resources in the Arctic more approachable, the need is still as strong as ever to have a robust Polar capability for the US Military.

The Northwest Passage

The missions of U.S. polar icebreakers are as follows:

  • Conducting and supporting scientific research in the Arctic and Antarctic.
  • Defending U.S. sovereignty in the Arctic by helping to maintain a presence in the region.
  • Defending other U.S. interests in Polar Regions, including economic interests relating to the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) north of Alaska.
  • Monitoring sea traffic in the Arctic, including ships bound for the United States.
  • Conducting other typical Coast Guard missions (search and rescue, law enforcement, etc) in Arctic waters, including U.S. territorial waters north of Alaska.

The height of the US seagoing icebreaker fleet was 1955-1972. In that golden age, the US Navy and the USCG combined maintained 8 heavily armed large icebreakers and 40 ships that could be classified as medium icebreakers. This included:

  • 1×309 foot heavy icebreaker (Glacier) that could break up to 20-feet of sea ice, armed with 5″ guns and capable of carrying two helicopters.
  • 7×269-foot heavy (Wind-class) icebreakers that could break up to 13-feet of sea ice, armed with 5″ guns and capable of carrying a helicopter.
  • 1x 230-foot medium icebreaker (Storis) that could break up to 6-feet of sea ice, armed with 3-inch guns.
  • 39x 180-foot (Balsam Class) buoy tenders with icebreaking bows that could break up to 3-feet of sea ice, armed with a 3-inch gun.
  • Also on the drawing board were as many as 4 mega 399-foot Polar Class heavy Icebreakers and a dozen 140-foot icebreaking tugs, projected for delivery as beginning as early as 1976.

By 1989 the USCG-only (the USN got out of the icebreaking biz in 1966) seagoing icebreaking fleet had largely been disarmed and had shrunk to :


The 399-foot Polar Star. Top of the line in icebreakers 1977-2010. However, note no visible weapons. For scientific missions, these are not needed. However, for sovereignty missions, are a must.

  • 2×399-foot, 13,000-ton Polar class icebreakers. These ships were commissioned in 1976 and 1978, painted red, and armed with two 12.7mm machineguns, small arms. They are capable of breaking up to 21-feet of sea ice and carrying two helicopters.
  • 31x remaining 180-foot aging Balsam class buoy tenders, most of which had been disarmed and delisted as being capable of icebreaking.
  • 9x 140-foot Bay Class icebreaking tugboats, armed with two 12.7mm machineguns and capable of breaking up to 3-feet of freshwater ice. These craft are all used on the US East Coast and Great Lakes to keep local waterways open and are therefore unavailable for polar operations.
  • (the 230-foot WWII-era medium icebreaker, Storis, had been retasked as a white-hulled cutter and was no longer used as an icebreaker)

Today, 2012 the USCG is in a pickle barrel full of ice. The 2011 USCG The “High Latitude Region Mission Analysis,”–a summary of which the Coast Guard’s current and future polar missions, stated that the USCG will need at least 3 heavy and 3 medium icebreakers to fulfill its requirements. Today it currently has…one of the above (a medium).

The current (Jan 2012) fleet consists of:


The USCGC Healy. One of the largest medium icebreakers in the world. The ship has fantastic labs and support facilities, but can only break 4.5 feet of ice. Compare this to the smaller Polar Star above that can shatter up to 21-feet of ice.

  • The 13-year old 420-foot, 16,000-ton USCGC Healy.  Commissioned in 1999, the ultra-modern red-hulled beast only has 30,000 shp maximum thrust to her shafts, whereas the smaller Polar-class icebreakers had a maximum of 75,000-shp. This means the largest US icebreaker ever commissioned can only break 4.5 feet of sea ice continuously at three knots, classifying her as a medium icebreaker. In 2011, the ship performed a seven-month science cruise in the Arctic Ocean conducting scientific operations. Due to the other large U.S. icebreakers, being either in repair (Polar Star) or in the process of being decommissioned (Polar Sea), the Healy is the only active large icebreaker in the Coast Guard’s fleet. Under the current arrangement, NSF is responsible for funding the Healy’s operations and maintenance while the Coast Guard is responsible for operating the ship and carrying out its maintenance program. Total Healy costs are approximately $24 million annually or about $130,000 per each of the 185 days she at sea. As a research ship, she is largely unarmed except the ship’s small arms locker.
  • The two 399-foot Polar Star-class heavy icebreakers have been used hard and put up wet. At some 30+ years old, they are well past their prime and due for a replacement that never came. Known as “Buildings 10 and 11” because they rarely move from their docks, both ships have been mission in-capable for several years although they are still on the USCG list as active ships. Since April 2010, neither has been deployable and will continue to be in such a condition for the next few years.

WAGB-10, the Polar Star on June 30, 2006, Polar Star was placed in a “Commission-Special” status in Seattle, WA with a reduced 34-man crew. The Coast Guard plans to reactivate her by 2013 after a $6-million refit, at which point she will 37-years old.  As it stands today, she has not been deployed in 7-years. It is expected that she will be deployable again in 2013 after the refit.

WAGB-11, the Polar Sea, is suffering from severe engine issues that could cost more than $400-million to refit the ship. On June 25, 2010, the Coast Guard announced that Polar Sea had suffered an unexpected engine casualty and consequently will likely be unavailable for operation. The report said, “…inspections of the Polar Sea’s main diesel engines revealed excessive wear in 33 cylinder assemblies.” Moreover, that, “…five of [the ship’s] six mighty engines are stilled, some with worn pistons essentially welded to their sleeves.” Unmoving since April 2010, it has been used for parts to assist the Polar Star in her rebuild and is slated for decommissioning. The most recent USCG report on her is concerning whether she should be awarded National Historic Places statuses upon her decommission.

On March 25, 2008, the Navy Times described options for the refit or replacement of the         Polar Star-class vessels. The four options laid out were either:

  1. Replacement at $925 million each
  2. Full refit at $400 million each that would make the vessel good for another 25 years.
  3. Minor refit $56 million each that would make the vessel good for another seven to ten years.
  4. One season refit at $8 million that would enable the ship to be patched together for one more season’s deployment.

Nov. 3, 2011, Congressional Research Service report estimates a new polar-class sized icebreaker would require 8 to 10 years before entering service. If requested in FY 2012, it is unlikely that a new heavy icebreaker will join the fleet before 2022.

The Coast Guard’s own proposed FY2011 budget does not request any funding in the service’s Acquisition, Construction, and Improvements (AC&I) account for polar icebreaker sustainment or for the acquisition of new polar icebreakers.

The Rest of the World’s Polar Fleet Countries with interests in the Polar Regions have differing requirements for polar icebreakers, depending on the nature and extent of their polar activities. According to one source, as of January 2009, Russia had a fleet of 25 polar icebreakers (including six active heavy icebreakers, two heavy icebreakers in caretaker status, 15 other icebreakers, and two additional icebreakers leased from the Netherlands. 7 of these ships are nuclear powered); Finland and Sweden each had seven heavy polar icebreakers, and Canada had 6.

The NSF and leased scientific ships.

 Supporting National Science Foundation (NSF) research activities in the Arctic and Antarctic have accounted for in the past for a significant portion of U.S. polar icebreaker operations. Supporting NSF research in the Antarctic has included performing—or, in more recent years, standing ready to assist in—an annual mission, called Operation Deep Freeze, to break through the Antarctic ice to resupply McMurdo Station, the large U.S. Antarctic research station located on the shore of McMurdo Sound, near the Ross Ice Shelf. The NSF pays for most USCG icebreaking efforts.

Laurence M. Gould at Palmer Station, contractor-operated 300+ days per year for the NSF

Nathaniel B. Palmer, contractor-operated by the NSF 300+ days per year for less than the cost of funding a USCG icebreaker for 185-days per year. Certain members of Congress are very interested in that concept.

Even with the USCG assets, the U.S. Antarctic Program Palmer Station resupply depends primarily on two privately owned vessels, the Laurence M. Gould (LMG) and the Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP). Both were designed and built based on input from the science community. As leased vessels, the NSF gets a great deal of bang for the buck. Annual costs for the NPB and LMG in 2007 were $16.3M and $7.5M, respectively, resulting in respective day costs of $54.3K and $23.4K for these ships, or less than half what the NSF spends on the Healy.

The NBP is an ABS A2 icebreaker capable of breaking 3 feet of level ice continuously at 3 knots, with 13,000 shaft horsepower and a displacement of 6,800 long tons. It is outfitted with all of the winches and A-frames necessary for deploying and retrieving oceanographic instrumentation. The vessel is outfitted with onboard oceanographic instrumentation and a networked computer suite, including multi-beam sonar, and has 5,900 ft2 of lab space and 4,076 ft2 of open deck space for oceanographic work and staging and a helicopter pad and hanger. The NBP averages 300 days a year underway in support of science.

The LMG was is smaller than the NBP and has less icebreaking capability, as it was designed to operate in the more benign ice regions surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula. The ship is an ABS A1 ice-strengthened vessel with 4,600 shaft horsepower and a displacement of 3,400 long tons and can break one foot of level ice at a continuous 3 knots. It is fully instrumented with onboard oceanographic instruments and a networked computer suite. The LMG has the dual purpose of supporting oceanographic science and providing re-supply to Palmer Station, located on the Antarctic Peninsula. The LMG averages 320 days a year underway in support of scientific research and associated logistics.

The 20,000-ton, 9-engined Russian icebreaker Krasin, chartered by the US NSF with tax dollars to get the job done

In FY 2005 and FY 2006, the NSF chartered the Russian government-owned, contractor-operated, icebreaker Krasin as no the USCG fleet was unable to meet commitments. In FY 2007 and FY 2008, they chartered the Swedish government-owned, contractor-operated, icebreaker Oden at $7.5 million per year, as the icebreakers that the USCG was provided $54-million by the NSF were insufficient. Furthermore, NOAA charters the Russian flagged R/V Yuzhmorgeologiya approximately 100 sea days per year in support of its Antarctic program.

Small Icebreakers

Besides, several smaller platforms were marginally Polar-capable. The 39 180-foot long Balsam-class buoy tenders were built with a notched forefoot, ice-belt at the waterline, reinforced bow, and stern. Capable of clearing through up to 20-inches of sea ice at a steady pace, the 180s could break through harbors and light pack ice.

In 1957, two of these 180-footers, Bramble and Spar with their larger half-sister the 230-foot Storis, circumnavigated the North American continent through hundreds of miles of sea ice. The Coast Guard convoy, known as Task Force 5, sailed to 4500-miles from Seattle to Point Barrow Alaska, then through the Northwest Passage to the East Coast. The three cutters were the first U.S. vessels to complete a circumnavigation of the continent, icebreaking all the way. With a combined crew of more than two hundred and carrying no less than four dual-purpose 3-inch naval guns as well as several 20mm cannons, this was a fairly well-armed force for 1957.

The unit patch of the Bramble, a 180-foot buoy tender. Can you guess what one of her main jobs was? She and her 39 sisters have all been retired and replaced by tenders that, while nicer and more modern, cant crush as much ice.

In the past two decades, the 230-foot medium icebreaking cutter Storis and all 39 of the 180-foot tenders, joined the six ice-strengthened 165-foot ice-strengthened cutters, and the 216-foot long Northland, in retirement.

Minor icebreaking is now the realm of the 19 new 225-foot Juniper class buoy tenders. The 225’s have a limited icebreaking capability of 14-inches of freshwater ice at 3 knots, or 3 feet of ice backing and ramming.  However, this figure is for Great Lakes use and is of very little use in polar ice. The 14 Keeper-class of 175-foot tenders can break 9-inches of freshwater ice at 3-knots and 18 inches by ramming. This is less than the 180-foot Balsam class buoy tenders that they replaced. Nine excellent 140-foot Bay class tugs have been introduced that can break freshwater ice up to 20 inches (51 cm) thick, and break ice up to 3 feet by ramming, but even this is still slightly less than the 180s.

Therefore, in terms of medium icebreaking the 1950s USCG had 47 vessels that could break up to 20-inches of sea ice that have now been replaced by 39 that can break a lesser amount of freshwater ice. These 39 assets are needed vitally along the East Coast and Great Lakes to the extent that it is unlikely that anything other than an occasionally detached 225-foot buoy tender could be detailed to Polar Region operations. Moreover, these craft are armed with only token crew-served low-angle gun mounts, leaving them incapable of projecting sovereignty in any but the most benign of environments.

The Northwest Passage

Legions of explorers looked for the Northwest Passage for hundreds of years, this included the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, which perished virtually to a man in the 1850s. The first man to complete the voyage was Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in a small 70-foot long 47-ton herring boat called the Gjoa.

Amundsen’s 70-foot long Gjoa in 1906. Even with a class of modern sailing yachts and a handful of sailors, the USCG could provide some sort of flag-waving patrol in the Northwest Passage. The route has been covered by no less than 4 US-flagged yachts since 1984.

The Northwest Passage has been accomplished 15 times by American vessels, and U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers have been the only American surface combatants to do so, carried out 11 of these voyages. In 1957 Storis, Bramble and Spar were the first of these Coast Guard cutters to make the journey through the passage, establishing a tradition that was followed by the Coast Guard cutters Northwind and Staten Island (1969), Polar Sea (1985, 1990), Polar Star (1988,1989) and Healy (2000, 2003). The other three American warships to transit fully the Northwest Passage were the submerged nuclear-powered submarines USS Nautilus (1958), USS Queenfish (1970), and USS Seadragon (1958). The US-flagged tanker M/V Manhattan was the first commercial vessel to make a full transit (in 1969).

The Northwest Passage is now wide open in some parts during the summer. In 2006, the Hapag-Lloyd cruise ship M/S Bremen sailed through it with passengers. The Bremen, built in 1990, is 6.752 gross tons carries 164 passengers and 100 crewmembers in its non-ice reinforced hull. No less than four privately owned US-flagged yachts have completed the passage in a single season since 1984, showing the feasibility of passing through.

On April 9, 2006, Canada’s Joint Task Force North declared that the Canadian military would no longer refer to the region as the Northwest Passage, but as the Canadian Internal Waters. The declaration came after the successful completion of Operation Nunavut (Inuktitut for “the land is ours”), which was an expedition into the region by five military patrols.

With no US icebreakers to prove otherwise, it looks like Canada is right.

A look at the Legacy fleet of USN/USCG Icebreakers, from the 1944-1989 Glory days or armed, destroyer-sized, capable, heavy cutters.

USS Glacier (AGB-4) 1955-1966 /USCGC Glacier (WAGB-4) 1966-1987

The proud (and heavily armed) USCGC Glacier. Built in Pascagoula MS, in the same yard as most of the modern US Navy’s destroyers and cruisers. Go figure

Displacement:             8,449 long tons (8,585 t) full load

Length:            309 ft. 6 in (94.34 m)

Complement:   14 officers, 2 warrant officers, 225 enlisted

Armament:      • 1 × twin 5 in (130 mm) guns (removed in 1966 when sent to USCG)

• 3 × twin 3 in (76 mm) guns

• 4 × 20 mm guns

Aircraft carried           2 helicopters. Air detachment: 14 officers and 10 enlisted.

Glacier was capable of breaking ice up to 20 feet (6.1 m) thick, and of continuous breaking of 4-foot (1.2 m) thick ice at 3 knots (5.6 km/h; 3.5 mph). Following 29 Antarctic and 10 Arctic deployments, Glacier was decommissioned in 1987

Seven Wind-class Heavy Icebreakers built for the US Navy and US Coast Guard

Northwind, circa 1955, a good example of the Wind class before they were painted red and had their teeth removed

Displacement: 6,500 short tons (5,900 metric tons) full load

Length:            269 ft (82 m)

Complement:   219 officers and men

Armament: Four 5-inch/38 (127 mm) dual-purpose guns (2 twin turrets). Twelve 40 mm/60 AA guns (3 quadruple turrets). Six 20 mm/80 AA; Y-guns. Two depth charge racks. One Hedgehog (weapon) launcher. M2 Browning machine guns and small arms. Reduced to just the M2s and small arms by 1970.  Originally carried a 1 Grumman J2F Duck seaplane, replaced by helicopter in the 1960s. Capable of breaking 13-foot sea ice.

USCGC Staten Island (WAGB-278), Commissioned 1944. Decommissioned 15 November 1974 and scrapped.

USCGC Eastwind (WAGB-279) Commissioned 1944. Decommissioned in 1968, sold in 1972, and scrapped.

USCGC Southwind (WAGB-280) Commissioned 1944. Decommissioned 1974, sold for scrap 1976.

USS Westwind (AGB-6) renamed USCGC Westwind (WAGB-281) in USCG service. Commissioned into USN in 1944. Transferred to USCG 1951. Decommissioned 29 February 1988, sold and scrapped.

USCGC Northwind  (WAGB-282). Commissioned in 1945. Decommissioned 1989 and scrapped.

USS Burton Island (AGB-88) Commissioned into USN in 1947. Transferred to USCG 1966, renamed USCGC Burton Island (WAGB-283) in USCG service. Decommissioned 1978, sold for scrap 1980.

USS Edisto (AGB-89) Commissioned into USN in 1947. Transferred to USCG 1966 and renamed USCGC Edisto (WAGB-284) in USCG service. Decommissioned 1977 and scrapped 1980.


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