Coast Guard needs at least 3 heavy icebreakers, says High Latitude Study

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The Coast Guard will need three heavy and three medium icebreakers to fulfill its statutory requirements in polar regions, primarily in the Arctic, says a study commissioned by the Coast Guard.

The "High Latitude Region Mission Analysis,"--a summary of which the Coast Guard provided (.pdf) to FierceHomelandSecurity--says a comparison of current Coast Guard capabilities to future polar missions shows gaps in most Coast Guard mission areas. 

A common, and dominant, factor behind the gaps the study deems "significant" is lack of polar icebreaking capability. ABS Consulting of Arlington, Va., and PotomacWave Consulting and SPA, Inc., both of Alexandria, Va., prepared the report.

Were the Coast Guard to also maintain the continuous presence called for by the Naval Operations Concept, it would need six heavy and four medium icebreakers, the study says. Report authors estimate the acquisition cost of the 3+3 mix to be $4.14 billion, while 6+4 would cost $6.93 billion to acquire.

The Coast Guard currently owns two heavy icebreakers, the Polar Sea and Polar Star, but Coast Guard officials say they lack resources to maintain both. The Polar Sea is set for decommissioning by Sept. 30 while the Polar Star is undergoing refurbishment, with an expected return to service in 2013.

The report allows that the Coast Guard may be able to conduct some missions in leased vessels, but seems to discourage it by stating that "the inherently governmental missions of the Coast Guard must be performed using government-owned and operated vessels."

The report also recommends the Coast Guard deploy a high-endurance cutter to the Bearing Sea with a short range recovery helicopter on board and station a minimum of two medium range recovery helicopters on Kodiak Island seasonally deployed to Cold Bay and St. Paul Island.  Additional assets such as up to 12 cutters with medium range helicopters and medium-range helicopters stationed in northwest Alaska and the North Slope would additionally reduce risk, the report says.   

The report anticipates that  future oil and gas exploration and the potential for new shipping routes caused by a warming of the Arctic will result in an increased demand for Coast Guard services.  

Although warming will ultimately melt harder, multi-year Arctic ice, large amounts of ice will still form over the winter, the report says. With the disappearance of multi-year ice, newly influential wind and currents will cause the location of ice to be less predictable--increasing the risk of entrapment, force grounds or damage by ice, it adds. First year ice can form ridges and become tightly packed.

In the Antarctic, the short term prediction is for sea ice to increase its cover, although by the late part of this century it will likely decrease by a third, the report says. The region will likely find itself under increased pressure from illegal, unlawful and unregulated fishing.  

For more:
- download the "United States Coast Guard High Latitude Region Mission Analysis Capstone Summary" (.pdf)

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