On 23 April 2019, the Coast Guard awarded a detail design and construction contract to VT Halter Marine Inc. for the lead ship of a new class of polar security cutters. Forty-four years after the commissioning of the Coast Guard’s only remaining operational heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10), on 19 January 1976, the replacements will fill a critical gap in capability.1 As Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl L. Schultz noted, “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.”
According to a VT Halter press release, the vessels will be 460 feet in length, have a beam of 88 feet overall, and displace approximately 23,000 long tons. Their propulsion will be diesel-electric with more than 45,200 horsepower, and they will be capable of breaking ice between six- to eight-feet thick. They will accommodate 186 personnel comfortably for an extended endurance of 90 days. The unresolved question is, will these ships have the military capabilities their name implies?
What’s In a Name?
In perhaps the only positive legacy of the Coast Guard’s failed Deepwater acquisition program, the service has adopted the practice of classifying ship types based on their mission in a way that appeals to U.S. citizens, and their representatives in Congress. Hence, high endurance cutters are being replaced by national security cutters, medium endurance cutters by offshore patrol cutters, and patrol boats by fast response cutters. Even the river buoy tenders have been renamed waterway commerce cutters to broaden their appeal and gain funding. The same public relations approach has been applied to the icebreakers.
As reported in USNI News in September 2018, as part of their successful efforts to restore congressional funding for the program, the Coast Guard renamed the polar icebreakers as polar security cutters. Rear Admiral Melvin Bouboulis, the Coast Guard’s Assistant Commandant for Engineering and Logistics, said during an American Society of Naval Engineers Fleet Maintenance and Modernization Symposium, “When we talk about icebreaking capability, that doesn’t sell very well to all audiences. We understand that some folks think just it goes and breaks ice, but we’ve purposely changed the name of that program to Polar Security Cutter because it is really the U.S. presence in the Arctic regions and preserving our national interest and security in those areas.”Supporting the concept that a security cutter will have a broader range of missions than an icebreaker, the Coast Guard’s fact sheet for the polar security cutter describes it as “a national asset that will ensure access to both polar regions and be capable of executing key Coast Guard missions, including defense readiness; marine environmental protection; ports, waterways and coastal security; and search and rescue,” (emphasis added). Including defense capability in the polar security cutter is consistent with, but does not go as far as, the Coast Guard’s earlier plans for these ships. Testifying before the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee in May 2017, then-Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft stated, “I have to look differently at what an icebreaker does. We need to reserve space, weight and power if we need to strap on an antiship missile package on it.” Taking this step would require a significant change in the way the Coast Guard, and the nation, think about the icebreaker fleet.
Who Would Put Missiles on an Icebreaker?
Although there is precedent for arming U.S. icebreakers, especially with the World War II–era Wind class and the Glacier (AGB-4/WAGB-4), these ships had their deck guns removed in the late 1960s, after the ships were transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard.2
Since then, it has become accepted that U.S. icebreakers are unarmed ships. After his presentation at the 30 April 2020 Annual Meeting of the U.S. Naval Institute, Admiral James G. Foggo III, then-Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/Commander, responded to a question about reports of armed Russian icebreakers by asking the rhetorical question, “Who would put missiles on an icebreaker?” The latest Congressional Research Service report on the Polar Security Cutter Program does not address the issue. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that this policy needs to be reconsidered.
New Thinking in the Era of Great Power Competition
The Coast Guard’s 2019 Arctic Strategic Outlook notes that the Arctic has become a strategically competitive space for the first time since the end of the Cold War. This conclusion is based both on the increasing amount of commercial shipping in the Arctic associated with the long-term reduction in the polar icepack and the interest China is taking in the Arctic. While the reduction in the icepack opens the possibility for increased activity, the Coast Guard concluded that the natural movement of the remaining ice “exposes mariners and Arctic communities to unpredictable levels of risk.”
Beyond the risks imposed by the Arctic environment, the Coast Guard also is concerned with the geopolitical risks presented by China, especially considering the ambiguous situation of U.S. claims in the Arctic because the United States has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. An official observer to the Arctic Council since 2013, China proclaimed itself a “near-Arctic” nation in a 2018 white paper on Arctic policy and has announced plans for a Polar Silk Road to include ports, undersea cables, airports, and the construction of a second multimission ice-capable ship. However, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected this claim at a meeting of the Arctic Council, stating, “Beijing claims to be a ‘near-Arctic state,’ yet the shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles. There are only Arctic States and Non-Arctic States. No third category exists, and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.”
The United States prefers a rules-based international order, and international associations such as the Arctic Council provide a mechanism for encouraging cooperation among nations with territory in the Arctic, native peoples, and observers from other interested countries. Having legitimate U.S. military capability in the Arctic, however, would provide encouragement for finding diplomatic solutions.
Costs and Benefits
A full discussion of the costs and benefits of increasing the military capabilities of the Coast Guard is beyond the scope of this article. However, the follow-on benefits of these systems should be acknowledged. For example, while there are costs associated with training to use and maintain antiship missiles, systems to support those missiles may enhance the Coast Guard’s ability to perform other missions. This dynamic is seen in the relationship between other Coast Guard missions. As an organization with 11 statutory missions, the Coast Guard achieves a force-multiplier effect by combining authorities and capabilities. The best known example is in maritime law enforcement. Because the Coast Guard regulates U.S. shipping and pleasure boating, it has the authority to conduct at-sea boardings to enforce those regulations without a warrant. If evidence of illegal activity is identified during a boarding, the boarding team can shift to law enforcement.
In the case of antiship missiles, the Coast Guard would benefit from applying the electronic warfare and associated command-and-control systems to other missions as well. The detection, awareness, and communications requirements needed to create a common operating picture to employ over-the-horizons missiles are the same capabilities a Coast Guard cutter could use to conduct law enforcement, search and rescue, or marine environmental protection missions.
While the Coast Guard appears to have turned the corner on recapitalizing its heavy icebreaker fleet, it should not overlook the advantages of equipping those cutters with military capabilities—up to and including antiship missile systems. If the polar security cutters are going to be worthy ships, they need a full range of capabilities to protect U.S. national interests in the Arctic.
1 Norman Polmar, The Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Feet, 13th ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 512.
2 Polmar, 514–15.