New U.S. icebreaker will focus on Antarctic, says Coast Guard boss

This summer 2018 photo shows the USCG Icebreaker Healy on a research cruise in the Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean. The U.S. Coast Guard is building a fleet of up to three icebreakers, with the first ship set to launch in 2024. (Devin Powell/NOAA/AP)
The Coast Guard expects to launch the first of three new icebreakers in 2024, but don’t expect to see much of it in Alaska. Coast Guard Commandant Karl Schultz said Tuesday the primary duty of the first icebreaker will be in the Antarctic, not the Far North.

“Until that second or third (polar) security cutter, we won’t really have much of a game up there, in terms of presence,” Adm. Schultz told a U.S. House Transportation subcommittee.

The new icebreaker’s essential mission will be to clear a path for supply ships serving the McMurdo Station. It takes more than 100 days to get to Antarctica, which would leave little time for trips to the Arctic. Schultz isn’t taking that lightly. He said physical presence on Arctic waters is vital for national security.

“In the polar regions, presence equals influence,” he said. “And your Coast Guard is the sole surface presence protecting our rights and projecting sovereignty.”

Trump ‘upset’ by price tag

In April, the government awarded a contract for up to three icebreakers to VT Halter Marine, a shipyard in Mississippi, in the southern US. Halter recently released some design details. The 460-foot hull will be able to break ice up to eight feet thick (2.4 meters). It will accommodate 186 people for up to 90 days at a time.

Schultz said the cost is expected to total $1.9 billion for the three ships.

House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, said that’s a concern for President Trump.

“When I was at the White House a few weeks ago, the president was quite upset at the price tag per ship,” DeFazio said at the hearing.

A White House spokeswoman did not respond to an email asking about the president’s views on the icebreaker contract.

The shipbuilder says it will deliver the third icebreaker by 2027.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: The Arctic shipping route no one is talking about, Cryopolitics Blog

China: At Arctic Circle Forum, China shows Arctic geopolitics are above Mike Pompeo’s pay grade, Cryopolitics Blog

Finland: Cold winter brings out Finland’s icebreakers ahead of schedule, Yle News

Norway: How a Norwegian coastal ferry service went global, Cryopolitics Blog

Russia: Russia extends lifetime of nuclear icebreakers to meet rising demand, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Local shipping generates more emissions than domestic flights, Radio Sweden

United States: Why are the US lagging behind in the Arctic? Clues emerge at Washington hearing, Alaska Public Media

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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