Countries are vying for their position as climate change makes the Arctic more conducive to navigation and the extraction of natural resources.
Conditions in the far north are still formidable, requiring specialized vessels. This is acutely felt in the United States, primarily due to its scarcity of icebreaking capacity compared to Arctic countries – especially Russia.
Moscow, which has the world’s largest Arctic coastline, has dozens of icebreakers, some of which are heavy models for the polar service, and others that are designed to work elsewhere, such as the Baltic.
The United States has only two, only one of which is a heavy icebreaker that can operate in the Arctic and Antarctic.
The Coast Guard’s Polar Star cutter cuts through Antarctic ice.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer David Mosley)
This heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, is over 40 years old and clings to its useful life – something former Coast Guard Commander Paul Zukunft was well aware of when asked to send the Polar Star north.
“When I was commander, the National Security Council approached me and said, ‘Hey, we should send the pole star to the Northern Sea Route and do a freedom of navigation exercise.’ said Zukunft, who retired as admiral in 2018., said december 2018 at an arctic-focused Wilson Center event.
“I said, ‘On the contrary, it’s a 40-year-old ship. We’re cannibalizing parts of his sister ship just to keep this thing working, and I can’t guarantee he won’t have a catastrophic technical injury as he’s doing a freedom of navigation exercise, and now I have to call on Russia to get me out of harm’s way. So now is not the time to do it, ”said Zukunft.
The Polar Star was commissioned in 1976 and refurbished in 2012 to extend its lifespan. It is the Coast Guard’s only operational heavy icebreaker and can cut ice up to 21 feet thick. (The Healy, the other icebreaker in the service, is an average icebreaker newer and bigger but has less icebreaker capability.)
The pole star is over 40 years old.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo by Rob Rothway)
The Coast Guard’s other heavy icebreaker and Polar Star’s sister ship, the Polar Sea, entered service the same year, but left service in 2010 after repeated engine failures.
As Zukunft said, the service was strip the polar sea of its parts to keep the Polar Star running, as many of these parts are no longer in production. When unable to get it from the Polar Sea, crew members have ordered used parts from eBay.
The icebreaker travels to McMurdo Station in Antarctica every year. On her last voyage in January 2018, the ship faced less ice but always treated with mechanical problemsincluding a gas turbine failure that reduced propeller power and a faulty shaft seal that allowed seawater to enter the vessel until it was sealed.
Harsh conditions bring the Polar Star – it’s the only cutter that goes into dry dock every year. He is also sailing with a year of food in case he gets stranded. As commander, Zukunft said the pole star was “literally on the support of life. “
Contractors work on the hull of the Polar Star while the knife undergoes maintenance at the depot.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew S. Masaschi)
The Coast Guard has been looking to start building new icebreakers for some time.
In 2016, Zukunft said the service was looking to build three heavy and three medium icebreakers. Together with the Navy, it released a joint RFP for the construction of a new heavy icebreaker in October 2017.
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard, requested 0 million during fiscal year 2019, which began on October 1, 2018, to design and build a new heavy polar icebreaker. (That request included millions for a project to extend the life of the Polar Star.)
But the department is one of many have not been funded for 2019, and it’s uncertain whether the icebreaker’s money will arrive as lawmakers focus on other spending priorities, like a wall on the US-Mexico border.
Coast Guard Healy approaches the Russian-flagged tanker Renda.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis)
The $ 0 million was stripped by the House appropriations committee in the summer of 2018 – a decision that protested by House Democrats. Coast Guard Commander Admiral Karl Schultz said in early December 2018 that he was “cautiously optimistic»That funding for a new polar icebreaker would be available.
The need for Russian assets to support the United States in the far north, however, would not be unprecedented.
When asked what infrastructure is needed in the Arctic to support US national defense, Zukunft stressed that much, like ports, would be dual-use, supporting military and civilian operations.
“But the immediate need right now is to market [operations], and that was brought home when we didn’t receive the fuel delivery in Nome, ”Zukunft said, probably referring to a 2012 incident in which the city of Alaska was frozen and a few weeks out of fuel.
“At that point, we were able to ask Russia to provide an ice-capable tanker escorted by Coast Guard Healy to resupply Nome.” The need for Russian means to support the United States in the far north would not be unprecedented, however.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.