More info on the new class of three planned Coast Guard Polar Security Cutters has bubbled up.
In short, they will be big boys, at 460-feet long and 33,000-tons. For reference, the Coast Guard’s current 50-year-old icebreaker, USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10), is 399-feet long and weighs in at comparatively paltry 13,800-tons.
However, the Polar Sea is a bruiser, packing 75,000 shaft horsepower in her CODAG plant. This allows her to crush up to 21 feet of ice by backing and ramming and cruise through 6-feet of pack at a continuous 3 knots. According to a statement released this week, the new PSC’s will have 42,500 shp but will still meet an 8-foot mark on ice-busting.
Of note, the Coast Guard’s single medium icebreaker, the 11,000-ton Healy can crack ice up to 10 feet thick.
More from VTH in Moss Point:
As you can see, the design is based on Finnish and German tech that is being used on the (under construction) German research breaker Polarstern II, which is about the same size.
The plan for Polarstern II is a good starting point as that ship includes:
-Maximum 130 persons on board.
-44 person crew living in single and double rooms.
-Normal cruises up to 60 scientists.
-Safety equipment (lifeboats) on each side 100%.
-80 places for 20” Containers (laboratories and storage).
-Seakeeping stabilizer suitable for the transit cruises and station operation.
-Helicopter Deck and Hangar for 2-3 Helicopters.
In short, these big breakers, larger than the planned German ship, could potentially carry a light company-sized landing force with a couple of helicopters.
Currently, the USCG’s cutters just carry a small arms locker with the capability to mount a couple of M2 .50-cals if absolutely needed. The penguins and polar bears have not put up much of a fight in recent years.
That could be changing.
Changes from the design to make the Coast Guard’s new vessel capable of fighting are still being decided. However, according to the USNI, “The ship’s combat system will be derived from the Aegis Combat System, and the Coast Guard is still mulling over the weapons loadout, [USCG Adm.] Schultz told reporters on Wednesday.”
In 2017, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft said the new icebreakers would be fully weaponized to include canister launched anti-ship missiles.
“We need to look differently at what an icebreaker does… We need to reserve space, weight, and power if we need to strap a cruise missile package on it… U.S. presence in the Arctic is necessary for more than just power projection; it’s a matter of national security… If they remain unchecked, the Russians will extend their sphere of influence to over five million square miles of Arctic ice and water.”
Things could get interesting.
Seattle saw the reappearance of “Building 10,” the common designation of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB-10), as she returned this week to her homeport after an epic 105-day deployment to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze, the 63rd year for the annual mission to supply McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
As the vessel is 43-years-young and has seen lots of hard service (she rams icebergs on purpose) things did not go as planned along the 11,200-mile sortie.
From the Coast Guard:
During the transit to Antarctica, one of the ship’s electrical systems began to smoke, causing damage to wiring in an electrical switchboard, and one of the ship’s two evaporators used to make drinkable water failed. The electrical switchboard was repaired by the crew, and the ship’s evaporator was repaired after parts were received during a port call in Wellington, New Zealand.
The impact from ice operations ruptured the cutter’s centerline shaft seal, allowing water to flood into the ship. Ice breaking operations ceased so embarked Coast Guard and Navy Divers could enter the water to apply a patch outside the hull so Polar Star’s engineers could repair the seal from inside the ship. The engineers donned dry suits and diver’s gloves to enter the 30-degree water of the still slowly flooding bilge to effect the vital repairs. They used special tools fabricated onboard to fix the leaking shaft seal and resume ice breaking operations.
The Polar Star also experienced ship-wide power outages while breaking ice in McMurdo Sound. Crew members spent nine hours shutting down the ship’s power plant and rebooting the electrical system in order to remedy the outages.
On Feb. 10, the crew spent nearly two hours extinguishing a fire in the ship’s incinerator room while the ship was approximately 650-nautical-miles north of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. The fire damaged the incinerator and some electrical wiring in the room was damaged by fire fighting water. There were no personnel injuries or damage to equipment outside the space. Repairs to the incinerator are already scheduled for Polar Star’s upcoming inport maintenance period.
And keep in mind that for at least one pay period while underway the crew went without the eagle flying due to the lapse in appropriations.
The good news is, the Coast Guard is seeking to pick up six new polar icebreakers and the FY19 budget actually appropriated $655 million to begin construction of a new “polar security cutter” this year, with another $20 million appropriated for long-lead-time materials to build a second. So they may actually get two out of the planned six when all is said and done.
Hopefully, Polar Star can hold out till then.
Also, did I mention the Russians have 50 icebreakers?
The country’s only heavy polar icebreaker has pulled it off again..despite the flooding, engine failure, you know, the regular.
The 42-year-old 399-foot USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) last week finished cutting a resupply channel through 15 miles of Antarctic ice in the Ross Sea and escorting supply vessels to the frozen continent to resupply McMurdo Station at the tip of Ross Island, the epicenter of the U.S. Antarctic Program (pop. 1200).
The trip was not without drama for the elderly cutter.
From the USCG:
“Although we had less ice this year than last year, we had several engineering challenges to overcome to get to the point where we could position ourselves to moor in McMurdo,” said Capt. Michael Davanzo, the commanding officer of the Polar Star. “Our arrival was delayed due to these challenges, but the crew and I are certainly excited to be here. It’s a unique opportunity for our crewmembers to visit the most remote continent in the world, and in many respects, it makes the hard work worth it.”
On Jan. 16, Polar Star’s shaft seal failed causing flooding in the cutter’s engine room at a rate of approximately 20-gallons per minute. The crew responded quickly, using an emergency shaft seal to stop the flow of freezing, Antarctic water into the vessel. The crew was able dewater the engineering space and effect more permanent repairs to the seal to ensure the watertight integrity of the vessel. There were no injuries as a result of the malfunction.
Flooding was not the only engineering challenge the crew of Polar Star faced during their trek through the thick ice. On Jan. 11, their progress was slowed after the one of the cutter’s three main gas turbines failed. The crew uses the cutter’s main gas turbine power to breakup thick multi-year ice using its propellers. The crew was able to troubleshoot the turbine finding a programming issue between the engine and the cutter’s 1970s-era electrical system. The crew was able to continue their mission in the current ice conditions without the turbine.
“If the Polar Star were to suffer a catastrophic mechanical failure, the Nation would not be able to support heavy icebreaker missions like Operation Deep Freeze, and our Nation has no vessel capable of rescuing the crew if the icebreakers were to fail in the ice,” said Vice Adm. Fred Midgette, commander, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area in Alameda, California. “The crewmembers aboard Polar Star not only accomplished their mission, but they did so despite extreme weather and numerous engineering challenges. This is a testament to their dedication and devotion to duty.”
The cutter refueled at McMurdo Station Jan. 18 and continued to develop and maintain the ice channel in preparation for two resupply ships from U.S. Military Sealift Command, Ocean Giant, and Maersk Peary. The crew of Polar Star escorted the vessels to the ice pier at McMurdo Station, an evolution that requires the cutter to travel about 300 yards in front of the supply ships to ensure they safely make it through the narrow ice channel. The crew escorted the Ocean Giant to the ice pier at McMurdo Jan. 27 and conducted their final escort of the Maersk Peary to Antarctica Feb. 2. The crew escorted Maersk Peary safely out of the ice Feb. 6 after supply vessel’s crew transferred their cargo.
The nation who at one time had the world’s largest and best-equipped icebreaker fleet has for years been suffering in that department. So much so that the only true heavy breakers we have under U.S. flag, the 399-foot USCGC Polar Star and Polar Sea, are among the oldest ships in the Coast Guard (who is known for having “veteran” platforms) and are uber-cranky.
The crew of the recently returned to duty cutter Polar Star responded to four general emergencies during their most recent deployment to Antarctica. A “general emergency” is a situation in which the crew and the cutter are in serious danger if the not remedied quickly. The crew experienced three fires and one major lube oil leak, which can quickly ignite into fire.
One of which required an out-of-the-box fix.
Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Oakes, an electrician’s mate aboard the Polar Star, used a surfboard repair kit to fix one of the cutter’s generators after the system shorted out and began smoking. The crew had lost power to one of their propellers en route to Antarctica leaving them with reduced power Dec. 13. The crew could not get specially designed replacement parts for the 40-year-old generator in time for the crew to execute their mission to Antarctica; however, with a little online research and brainstorming, Oakes used one of his shipmate’s surfboard repair kits to fabricate a new replacement part allowing the Polar Star’s crew to continue their mission.
The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB-10) enters an ice field near the Balleny Islands Jan. 5, 2015, while en route to Antarctica in support of the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation.
The Polar Star, the second/third largest coast guard cutter in service, just began a four-month mission to Antarctica as part of Operation Deep Freeze 2014 to 2015, the Polar Star sails as part of part of Joint Task Force Support Forces Antarctica, alongside U.S. Air Force and Navy personnel, in support of USAP.
The 38-year old Polar Star, a huge 13,800-ton beast, is, with her sister, the most powerful seagoing icebreaker ever built for the U.S. sea services with her half dozen Alco 16V-251F diesel engines and trio of Pratt & Whitney FT-4A12 gas turbines giving her over 93,000 shp to her three shafts, making her capable of breaking ice 21-feet thick.
She spent 2006-2012 laid up at her slip in Seattle and during that time was simply referred to as “Building 10” since she never moved.
Its good to see the old girl back in the ice.
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.
– Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday May 21, Alexander’s Polar Star
Here we see a beautiful rendering by the noted Russian artist Alexander Beggrow in 1892 of His Russian Imperial Highness’s Ship Polyarnaya zvezda (Polar Star). This painting is currently in the Central Naval Museum, St.-Petersburg, Russia and is one of the few artifacts remaining of the craft.
The yacht/auxiliary cruiser Polar Star was built at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg under commission for the Tsar of all the Russias, Alexander Alexandrovitch Romanov III, as a gift for his wife, the Danish-born Tsarina Marie. Designed by the Navy’s shipbuilding plans group, she was laid out by Admiral I. Shestakova who used inspirational plans of the fast British second-class cruisers Iris and Mercury – who when she was completed was the fastest ship in the Royal Navy –as a base line for the Tsar’s fast new ship.
She was laid down at the Baltic shipyard May 20, 1888, in the presence of the Imperial couple and top officials of the Ministry of the Navy, she was launched on May 19, 1890. After mooring and sea trials in March 1891, the ship was adopted in the ships of the Baltic fleet and listed as part of the Imperial Guards.
She was thoroughly modern. Built of good German Siemens-Martin steel, she had full-length watertight doors, electric lighting throughout, a
double-bottom hull, and a modern steam plant that consisted of two vertical triple expansion steam engines with designed capacity of 3000 HP each and 10 boilers. She had fully redundant systems including two sets of emergency steering wheels, one above deck and another below. Polar Star was outfitted it precious woods and furniture, as fitting the Imperial family.
Dozens of sketches by Nabokov and Prokofiev decorated the salons of the ship. For going ashore in style, she carried 8 away boats, including two mahogany-constructed steam launches for the royals.
As she was to carry the Tsar, whose father had been assassinated just ten years before, the ship was heavily armed with a quartet of rather well hidden Hotchkiss 5-barreled Gatling-type 47 mm guns which were considered just the thing to smother an incoming anarchists controlled terrorist ship with hot lead, capable of spitting 30 rounds per minute out past 2000-meters. Called “Gockisa guns”, this armament, as well as an entire platoon of heavily armed Imperial Marines, quartered below deck, provided a formidable force.
Besides the Marines, the ships 313-man crew was extensively vetted and cleared by the Tsarist secret police, the dreaded Okhrana, and its members were thought salted among them as seemingly innocent stewards and stokers just to keep everyone honest.
Further, whenever the yacht traveled with the Tsar aboard, she was accompanied by an escort that included at least a couple torpedo boats and a cruiser.
Whenever the ship anchored in isolated Finnish jetties, the local harbors and towns would carry the following message:
“Notice to all mariners concerning seafaring regulations when the Russian Imperial Yacht is in Finnish waters: Fire will be opened on all commercial shipping and all yachts–whether motor, sail or steam-that approach the line of guard ships. All ships wishing to put to sea must seek permission not less than six hours in advance. Between sundown and sunrise, all ships underway may expect to be fired upon.”
All of this security allowed the targeted royals to relax and enjoy themselves.
The yacht served the Imperial family for 26 years. After Tsar Alexander died in 1894, it was passed to his son who soon had his own super yacht, Standart, built in Denmark (to roughly the same plan as Polar Star only bigger– to confuse terrorists as to which yacht was carrying the royals.) Nevertheless the Polar Star stayed in the family and was used not only by Nicholas but by his mother, uncles, and others.
It sailed to England, Germany, and all points in between, serving as a safe refuge for the Imperial family as they visited friends and relatives in Europe.
Two sailors from the Imperial yachts were even chosen to be the new Tsarvitch Alexis’s nannies in 1905.
Speaking of 1905, the Polar Star almost changed history when Nicholas, traveling alone, met Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany on his own yacht at the remote Finnish inlet named Bjorko. There, Willy got Nicholas, his cousin, to sign a non-aggression treaty with Germany. The problem was that the Tsar’s father had already in 1894 signed one with France, Germany’s clear and present danger. Long story short, and after a good bit of bad blood between the Tsar, the Kaiser, Paris and London, this treaty was discarded. If it hadn’t, the First World War could have been very different.
Speaking of war, when it finally came in 1914, the days of slow peaceful cruises were done. Both Standart and Polar Star were placed dockside and largely forgotten.
When the Russian Revolution found Polar Star in March of 1917, she was iced in Helsinki (then-Helsingfors) with units of the Baltic Fleet. Her Marine Guard long since sent to the front and her crew raided to man other warships, she was no longer full of the spit-and-polish Russian jacks that had doted on the Tsar and his family.
In fact, on April 28, 1917, the ship was made the headquarter of the Revolutionary Central Committee of the Baltic fleet (CENTROBALT) in Finland. Her Captain at the time, Lyalin, was very popular in the fleet and was elected the first Red fleet commander. The coming spring, Polar Star made steam and sortied across the Gulf of Finland in the epic Ice Crossing to Kronstadt, just days ahead of being seized by the Germans.
She sat out the Russian Civil War there and, relatively undamaged by British raids in 1919, and the harsh Red Army reprisals during the 1921 Kronstadt Uprising, she was left swinging at her anchor lines with her crew largely taking up residence aboard the old yacht. In 1930, after a review of available hulls, the Soviet Red Banner Fleet decided to refit Polar Star for further use. Considering she was nearly 40 years old, its a testament that she was constructed so well as to still be useful.
Her old steam plant was removed as was one of her funnels and she had installed a new low-speed diesel plant that could propel her at 10-knots. Armed with a number of old 3-inch guns, she was used as a submarine tender and troop transport during both the Finnish Winter War (1939-40) where she blockaded the Finnish Coast and later took troops into Tallin after Estonia was occupied. Then came World War Two, where she spent her time dodging German and Finnish bombs, mines, and torpedoes. In 1942 she was made the headquarters of the 3rd Submarine Division and by 1944 moved forward to Turku, which enabled a more rapid turn around for war patrols of the Soviet U-boats she supported.
By 1954 her new engineering plant was unreliable but her hull was still sound even at age 63 and as such she was made a static accommodation ship, with new sailors and officers assigned to ship’s bunks spent their time smoking cigarettes on the same decks as Kaisers, Kings, and Tsars once tread.
By December 1968, the old Polar Star was sent to the scrappers, her service done, although some reports mention that she may have been used to test anti-ship missiles as late as the early 1970s and was expended as a target hulk. Nevertheless, both the sovereign and later the Party got their ruble’s worth out of the old girl.
Speed: 17 knots (1891), 10 knots (1930)
Powerplant: 2 × vertical triple expansion steam engines, 2 bronze screws, 10 boilers (as commissioned) Two 625hp diesels after 1930.
Crew: 313 ships crew, 36 marines, 50 persons in Imperial suite. Post 1930, unknown
4 x 47mm guns Gockisa (1891),
3 × 76mm,
3 × 45mm
2 × 12,7mm HMG
4 × 76mm
4 × 37mm
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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 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 upto 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 upto 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 :
- 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 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 with the exception of 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” due to the fact that 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 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 deployed in 7-years. It is expected that she will be deployable again in 2013 after refit.
WAGB-11, the Polar Sea, is suffering from severe engine issues that could cost in excess of $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:
- Replacement at $925 million each
- Full refit at $400 million each that would make the vessel good for another 25 years.
- Minor refit $56 million each that would make the vessel good for another seven to ten years.
- One season refit at $8 million that would enable the ship to be patched together for one more season’s deployment.
A 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 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 has accounted 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 so as 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.
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 on-board 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 ice breaking 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 on-board 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.
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.
In addition, there were a number of smaller platforms that were marginally Polar-capable. The 39 180-foot long Balsam-class buoy tenders were built with a notched forefoot, ice-belt at 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.
In the past two decades, the 230-foot medium icebreaking cutter Storis and all 39 of the180-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 ice breaking 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 fresh water 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.
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 Nunalivut (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
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
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 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 1944Transferred to USCG 1951. Decommissioned 29 February 1988, sold and scrapped.
USCGC Northwind (WAGB-282). Commissioned 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.