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US Coast Guard’s Arctic Plan Opens Door to Acquiring Commercial Icebreakers

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star sits hove-to on a cloudy day in Antarctica, Jan. 17, 2022. U.S. Coast Guard Photo

US Coast Guard’s Arctic Plan Opens Door to Acquiring Commercial Icebreakers

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 5401
October 26, 2023

The U.S. Coast Guard unveiled its Arctic Strategic Outlook Implementation Plan on Thursday, outlining a series of initiatives aimed at promoting safety, security, and stewardship in the Arctic region.

The plan includes 14 initiatives with action items that aim to achieve the objectives set out in the 2019 Arctic Strategic Outlook, which include protecting rights, supporting the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, and ensuring regional safety and security in the region.

One notable action item in the plan is to develop a strategy to potentially acquire a commercially-available icebreaker to complement the existing polar icebreaking cutter capabilities and increase the Coast Guard’s presence in the Arctic in the near-term to address icebreaking capacity gaps.

The U.S. Coast Guard serves as the nation’s lead federal agency for homeland security, safety, and environmental stewardship in the Arctic, and is responsible for operating and maintaining the federal fleet of icebreakers.

While the Coast Guard has been operating in the region for over 150 years, the strategic importance of the Arctic has grown due to global geopolitical trends and climate change. This has created both economic opportunities and risks to residents, commercial activities including shipping, and U.S. national security. As the region becomes more accessible, the Coast Guard’s leadership and presence in the region will become increasingly crucial.

To increase its presence and capabilities in the region, the Coast Guard’s three-vessel Polar Security Cutter (PSC) program has been a top priority for the service. Currently, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutters Polar Star (heavy polar icebreaker) and Healy (medium polar icebreaker) are the nation’s only operational polar icebreakers. While construction of the Coast Guard’s first Polar Security Cutter prototype is underway at Bollinger Shipyards, delivery of the first icebreaker is not expected until at least 2027.

Strategic Outlooks help to guide long-term planning efforts and establish lines of effort to achieve the Service’s overarching objectives. Other initiatives included in the Arctic implementation plan include enhancing Arctic operations and exercises, expanding surface and aviation capabilities, improving communications and maritime domain awareness, preserving U.S. leadership in the Arctic Council, modernizing transportation systems, strengthening environmental preparedness and response, promoting Arctic study and policy, fostering a culture of Arctic innovation, strategic communication, and formalizing the U.S. Coast Guard polar enterprise.

For inspiration on adding secondhand icebreaking capacity, the Coast Guard may want to look to the Canadian Coast Guard which recently dedicated the third medium icebreaker out of the three that it purchased secondhand from the commercial market in 2018.

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