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The icebreaker Aiviq completing refuelling operations at Davis Research Station. Photo: Kirk Yatras via Australian Antarctic Division

The icebreaker Aiviq completing refuelling operations at Davis Research Station. Photo: Kirk Yatras via Australian Antarctic Division

U.S. Coast Guard Looking to Acquire Commercial Icebreaker ‘Aiviq’

Malte Humpert
Total Views: 12615
March 5, 2024

U.S. Coast Guard notice reveals the service is seeking to acquire the icebreaker Aiviq from a unit of Edison Chouest Offshore to help plug icebreaking capability gaps

In a new public notice, the U.S. Coast Guard disclosed it intends to solicit a firm-fixed-price contract from Offshore Service Vessels LLC to acquire an existing “domestically produced, commercially available icebreaker” from the company.

Offshore Service Vessels, part of Edison Chouest Offshore, is the registered owner of American-made icebreaking offshore supply vessel M/V Aiviq, the only commercially-available vessel to meet previously specified criteria. 

In its 2023 Arctic Strategic Outlook Implementation Plan the USCG discussed a plan to potentially procure a commercially-available icebreaker to expand its polar capabilities in the near-term. The service’s upcoming icebreaking Polar Security Cutter, produced by Bollinger Mississippi Shipbuilding, faces ongoing delays with a service entry now likely pushed back to 2028 at the earliest. 

The Coast Guard’s options for a stop-gap measure are extremely limited, especially given the need for the vessel to be American-made.

“Offshore Service Vessels is the only company that can meet USCG needs,” the notice reads

Aiviq, a 360-foot Arctic ice class anchor handler, was built by Edison Chouest Offshore and originally chartered for Shell’s 2012 oil exploration efforts in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska. Late that year, the Aiviq was towing the Kulluk drilling rig from Alaska to Washington when the rig broke free and ran aground on a remote island near Kodiak. The incident, along with other factors, ultimately led to Shell abandoning the drilling campaign. Most recently the Aiviq has been in the service of the Australian Antarctic program during the 2021/22 and 2022/23 seasons.

Discussions about the Coast Guard acquiring the vessel to supplement its own icebreakers Polar Star and Healy have been ongoing since at least 2015. 

At the time Coast Guard leadership did not find the vessel “suitable for military service without a substantial refit.” It was also found to be less-capable than the medium icebreaker Healy.  

While the vessel meets the service’s specified requirements, e.g. Polar Class 3 or higher, at least 15 years of service life remaining, and capable of breaking 3ft of ice continuously at 3kts, it would require a host of modifications.

The need for a “substantial refit” will add to the expected purchase price of around $150m.

Aiviq appears to be the service’s least-bad option despite the substantial costs to purchase the vessel and get it mission ready.

Previous discussions to revive Polar Star’s sister ship, Polar Sea, which suffered a catastrophic engine failure in 2010, have not materialized.

Reviving the 50 year old Polar Sea’s power plant – consisting of three gas turbines, six propulsion diesel generators and electric propulsion motors – would be a tall order. And it would not get the Coast Guard any closer to operating in the Arctic with a modern fleet of capable icebreaking vessels. 

The Coast Guard has not released a timeline for when it would expect Aiviq to enter into service, but recent experience refitting Norwegian icebreakers for service with the Canadian Coast Guard, suggests the vessel would not be ready before 2026 or 2027.

Malte Humpert is a Senior Fellow and Founder of The Arctic Institute. His research focuses on Arctic geopolitics, Northern Sea Route shipping and shipping scenarios, and China’s political and economic interests in the region.

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