With Mt. Baker in the background, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB-10) transits Puget Sound north of Seattle on Dec. 4, 2020, on its Arctic deployment. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier

The United States’ Only Heavy Icebreaker Heads North to the Arctic

Mike Schuler
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December 7, 2020

The nation’s only heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, departed Seattle on Friday for its month-long deployment to the Arctic.

While there the vessel and its crew will “protect the nation’s maritime sovereignty and security” in Alaskan waters and into the Arctic, including along the Maritime Boundary Line between the United States and Russia, the Coast Guard said in statement.

“The Polar Star will detect and deter illegal fishing by foreign vessels in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone and conduct Arctic training essential for developing future icebreaker operators,” the Coast Guard said.

The USCGC Polar Star typically participates in Operation Deep Freeze, the annual resupply mission to McMurdo Station in Antarctica in support of the National Science Foundation. This year’s mission was cancelled due to COVID safety precautions, and only a limited resupply will be conducted via aircraft.

“Polar Star is poised to head into the cold, dark Arctic winter to carry out a historic mission,” said Capt. Bill Woitrya, the cutter’s commanding officer. “The ship is ready, and the crew is enthusiastic to embark on this adventure. We will defend U.S. interests in the region, and continue to hone our proficiency to operate in such a harsh, remote environment.”

The Coast Guard, however, insists that Operation Deep Freeze is an enduring mission that requires a heavy icebreaker for a full resupply, and the Coast Guard anticipates resuming the deployment next year.

In August, the United States’ sole medium icebreaker, the 21-year-old CGC Healy (WAGB 20), suffered an electrical fire in the starboard main propulsion motor cutting short its Arctic operations. The motor was recently replaced during a unique dry dock evolution and the icebreaker is expected to return to the Arctic in 2021.

In April 2019, the Coast Guard released the Arctic Strategic Outlook, reaffirming the service’s commitment to the region. The Coast Guard, which is the sole provider of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability since 1965, is seeking to increase its icebreaking fleet with six new polar security cutters (PSC) to ensure continued national presence and access to the Polar Regions.

Last year, the Coast Guard awarded VT Halter Marine a contract for the design and construction of the Coast Guard’s lead polar security cutter, which will also be homeported in Seattle. The contract also includes options for the construction of two additional PSCs.

“The Arctic is no longer an emerging frontier, but is instead a region of growing national importance,” said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area. “The Coast Guard is committed to protecting U.S. sovereignty and working with our partners to uphold a safe, secure, and rules-based Arctic.”

The USCGC Healy, a medium icebreaker, and the 45-year-old heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Star are currently the United States’ only icebreakers. By comparison, Russia currently operates more than 50 – several of which are nuclear powered.

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