Driven by the congressional mandate to conduct icebreaking operations in support of maritime safety and international agreements, the Coast Guard deploys icebreaking cutters to the world’s most remote waters. These missions are distinctly divided between polar and domestic ice operations: Polar icebreakers support science; domestic icebreakers support commerce. There are currently no cutters that operate in both the polar and domestic domains, and with scarce demand for Coast Guard icebreakers at the poles outside of scientific research, the service has successfully met the mission for decades while keeping polar and domestic icebreaking separate.
However, the nature of northern ice operations will drastically change in the near future, as recognized by the most recent triservice maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea, which stated, “Receding sea ice is opening the region to growing maritime activity and increased competition.” As the sole U.S. entity responsible for and capable of conducting ice operations, the burden falls on the Coast Guard to adapt to how climate change is affecting high-latitude maritime operations—all while continuing to meet current icebreaking obligations.
The service has taken initial steps to address the changing operational landscape by starting to procure new heavy icebreakers and announcing the Arctic security cutters, a new class of medium icebreakers. However, the Coast Guard has not released details on the design or intended missions of these medium icebreakers. Designing them as multidomain medium icebreakers capable of polar and domestic ice operations would allow the Coast Guard to effectively address rising challenges in the Arctic while maintaining the flexibility to still complete long-standing missions in the Great Lakes, Arctic, and Antarctic.
Polar icebreakers enable the United States to maintain year-round access to high-latitude regions in support of defense readiness operations, scientific research, and law and treaty enforcement. In Antarctica, the USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) facilitates the annual resupply of McMurdo Station—the National Science Foundation’s largest Antarctic base—and conducts occasional international treaty inspections. In the Arctic, USCGC Healy (WAGB-20) helps civilian scientists perform government-funded experiments. Both cutters assert U.S. presence at the poles in support of Advantage at Sea.
Environmental changes, and subsequent changes in strategic direction, are driving the Coast Guard to prioritize recapitalizing its polar fleet under the “six-three-one” strategy: a minimum of six icebreakers, at least three of which are heavy, and one needing delivery now. In support of this plan, the service recently awarded VT Halter Marine Inc. a $746 million contract for the new heavy icebreaker, the Polar Security Cutter. This new cutter class is desperately needed, considering the nation relies on a single heavy icebreaker—the 50-year-old casualty-prone Polar Star. While useful assets at the poles, the Polar Security Cutter’s large draft and beam will prevent the ships from entering the Great Lakes and other domestic waters, restricting them exclusively to polar operations.
In addition to the Polar Security Cutters, the Coast Guard also plans to acquire three medium icebreakers, the Arctic Security Cutters. While the changing Arctic is both a major area of international focus and the driving force for the procurement of these new cutters, the Coast Guard cannot forget the importance of domestic and Antarctic operations and the benefits medium icebreakers would bring to these domains. Domestic icebreaking, Antarctic operations, and even Arctic missions would all benefit from deploying the Arctic Security Cutters to all three locations.
Domestic icebreaking is a distinctly different mission than polar icebreaking. While polar icebreaking focuses on scientific research and asserting U.S. presence, domestic icebreaking keeps ice-laden waters open to commercial traffic, supporting the movement of more than 90 million tons of cargo annually. These vessels are also critical search-and-rescue and flood-relief assets during the winter, when icy conditions force Coast Guard small boats ashore and ice jams flood waterfront property.
The Coast Guard uses three cutter classes for domestic icebreaking: 140-foot harbor tugs, 225-foot buoy tenders, and the 240-foot CGC Mackinaw (WLBB-30). The current condition and capability of the domestic fleet should be concerning. The 140-foot harbor tugs (the workhorse of domestic icebreakers) were commissioned in the late 1970s and early 1980s and were designed with a planned end-of-service life between 2008 and 2010. Rather than replace the tugs at the intended time, the Coast Guard poured $121 million into extending their service lives by another 15 years. Regardless of the upgrades and maintenance conducted, decades of icebreaking have placed significant wear on the hulls and propulsion plants of these vessels. The 225-foot buoy tenders are notably newer—both were commissioned in the early 2000s. However, with a maximum sustained icebreaking capability of 14 inches, these cutters are better described as ice-capable buoy tenders than icebreakers. The Mackinaw, the newest and most capable Great Lakes icebreaker, is a potential single point of failure for domestic icebreaking capability. A casualty severe enough to put the Mackinaw out of service, even temporarily, during peak ice season would be a significant blow to the Coast Guard’s ability to meet mission demands across the Great Lakes.
It seems the Coast Guard recognizes these concerns. In a June 2020 report to Congress, the service stated that new icebreakers, with at least one similar to the Mackinaw, are necessary to meet future missions in the Great Lakes. Furthermore, the Lake Carriers Association, backed by several U.S. senators, claims the Coast Guard’s inadequate icebreaking capability in the Great Lakes cost an estimated 5,400 jobs and $1 billion in lost revenue during the 2018–19 winter alone. Raising further concerns among industry is the long-standing cooperative icebreaking agreement between the United States and Canada, which often results in U.S.-funded icebreakers assisting Canadian-flag vessels carrying cargo to Canadian ports. Critics of the agreement argue that because the Canadian Coast Guard has only two icebreakers covering four of the five Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, there is an undue burden on limited U.S. icebreakers and insufficient focus on U.S.-flagged commercial vessels.
As with the Arctic, ice coverage on the Great Lakes is expected to continue to decrease because of climate change. While diminished ice in the Arctic increases icebreaker demand, reduced ice coverage in the Great Lakes requires fewer icebreakers. In this case, building a new domestic icebreaker class may put an unnecessary strain on the Coast Guard’s tight budget. Rather than develop an entirely new class of domestic icebreakers, the Coast Guard should use the Arctic Security Cutters as a standby asset. During periods of increased icebreaker demand (a severe winter) or decreased icebreaking capability (Mackinaw under repair), the Arctic Security Cutters could divert to the Great Lakes to assist. With the addition of several heavy icebreakers to the current polar fleet, diverting a single medium icebreaker during the winter months (the slower season for Arctic traffic) should have minimal effects on Arctic operations.
Arctic Security Cutters would also bring immense benefit to the southern hemisphere. Although the current narrative focuses on commerce, search and rescue, and defense operations, Coast Guard icebreakers historically conduct oceanographic research, as 14 U.S.C § 102 mandates. Therefore, the Coast Guard’s primary mission in the Antarctic region is Operation Deep Freeze—the annual resupply of McMurdo Station. The thick, multiyear ice characteristic of Antarctic waters requires at least one heavy icebreaker to break out the research base. Since 2014, every Deep Freeze operation was completed solo by the Polar Star, leaving few opportunities for treaty enforcement or research. This focus on Deep Freeze, and consequential shift away from other missions, is underscored by the removal of all scientific equipment, civilian scientist complements, and helicopter detachments from the Polar Star following reactivation in 2013. The Polar Star’s now narrowly defined mission coupled with the Healy’s obligations to Arctic research leaves little room for additional Antarctic operations outside of Deep Freeze.
Deploying Arctic security cutters to the southern hemisphere would enable them to conduct international treaty inspections (these used to be standard operations for Polar cutters) while the larger icebreakers focused on McMurdo. Outfitting the Arctic security cutters with A-frames, davits, and scientific labs would enable them to conduct oceanographic research. These medium icebreakers would also serve as a valuable standby asset. During a heavy ice year, they could divert from inspections and research to assist the larger breakers with Operation Deep Freeze, just as the Healy did in 2003.Medium icebreakers would act as a force multiplier by conducting track maintenance, vessel escorts, and direct assists after a heavy icebreaker established a rudimentary track through the ice. Furthermore, additional Coast Guard assets would maintain an active and influential U.S. presence throughout the southern continent, beyond McMurdo Sound, in support of national interests.
Returning to the Arctic
Extending the reach of the Arctic security cutters beyond the northern high latitudes would allow crews to develop valuable skills on their return to the Arctic. While the fundamentals of icebreaking remain the same regardless of location or platform, ice conditions, techniques, and standard operations are notably different depending on location. For example, domestic icebreakers often conduct hundreds of vessel escorts and direct assists each winter. In contrast, the Polar Star may conduct up to three vessel assists during Deep Freeze, provided the ice conditions are even challenging enough for the resupply vessels to warrant an escort. As vessel traffic increases in the Arctic, having a medium icebreaker on-scene with the expertise gained from the Great Lakes would prove invaluable. Moreover, the crews of medium icebreakers may eventually end up on heavy icebreakers, arriving with a plethora of multidomain icebreaking experiences from their time on Arctic security cutters.
Though it seems contradictory to send Arctic security cutters away from the Arctic, this would be the most effective allocation of assets. The “six-three-one” plan should leave the Coast Guard with four heavy and four medium icebreakers. Four heavy icebreakers would provide enough coverage to complete year-round polar operations, especially considering Antarctic icebreaking occurs exclusively in the austral summer. The medium icebreakers can then strategically deploy to the region that needs the most support, giving the service the best return on investment.
The Wind-class Cutters
While the idea of a multi-environment icebreaker may seem far-fetched in today’s Coast Guard, the service successfully employed this strategy for decades. Seven 269-foot Wind-class icebreakers were built in the early 1940s. Considered a medium icebreaker by today’s standards, these capable vessels were considered the world’s most technologically advanced icebreakers at the time. Each cutter operated for at least three decades, with the CGC Northwind (WAGB-282) serving in the Coast Guard for 44 consecutive years. Wind-class cutters participated in dozens of Deep Freeze deployments, conducted Arctic resupply missions, supported Allied forces during World War II in the Greenland Patrol, escorted commercial vessels on the Great Lakes, and conducted oceanographic research in both high-latitude regions.
The Coast Guard must deliberately design the Arctic Security Cutters to optimize icebreaking capability while ensuring they can still pass through the 15 locks that connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. The best course of action is to take the well-proven hull design of the Wind-class cutter, apply decades of lessons learned, and outfit them with modern technology. Eliminating the Wind-class cutters’ heavy armament (four five-inch guns, 18 antiaircraft turrets, and antisubmarine weapons) would leave ample room for oceanographic research equipment and labs. Whereas the Wind-class sailed with a seaplane, the Arctic security cutters should deploy with a helicopter detachment for ice reconnaissance, scientific sorties to remote locations, passenger transfers for Antarctic treaty inspections, increased search-and-rescue capacity, and the ability to medevac crew members if needed.
Advances in technology have allowed the Coast Guard to staff cutters with fewer people. For example, the Healy routinely deploys to the Arctic with a permanent crew of approximately 80. The Wind-class cutters sailed with a crew of 219—far more than the service would need to operate today. Reducing the number of racks to the low hundreds would support a crew complement like the Healy’s while leaving space for civilian scientists and an aviation detachment. Halving the number of racks on board while keeping the same dedicated berthing space would have the added benefit of enhancing living quarters for the crew, a necessity for cutters conducting long, arduous deployments.
The Coast Guard plans to create a central hub for all icebreakers by homeporting the three new Polar security cutters in Seattle alongside the Healy and Polar Star. By contrast, one Arctic security cutter should homeport in Seattle (giving it access to the western Arctic), and the other two in the Northeast, such as Boston. These northeastern cutters would be the primary standby asset for the Great Lakes while simultaneously providing icebreaker coverage in the eastern Arctic. Any homeport location would work for Antarctic missions, as the distances between the United States and southern continent are so vast that the starting location hardly makes a difference. Homeporting two of the medium icebreakers in the Northeast and one in the Pacific Northwest would provide the ideal coverage for all three domains.
As climate change continues to shift operational priorities in the Arctic, the Coast Guard cannot lose sight of the benefits that medium icebreakers would reap operating domestically and in the Southern Hemisphere and Arctic. As the only U.S. entity responsible for icebreaking operations, the Coast Guard must effectively address the shifting geopolitical landscape in the Arctic while continuing to meet icebreaking demands at home and in Antarctic waters. The first step in capitalizing on this opportunity is to deliberately design and homeport the Arctic security cutters so they can be a capable, flexible asset ready to strategically deploy where support is most needed.