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Coast Guard sends icebreaker to Antarctic for first time since 2006

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A Coast Guard icebreaker set out for the Antarctic for the first time in seven years on Dec. 3.

The USCGC Polar Star, the service's one and only operational heavy icebreaker, set out from Seattle, carrying onboard eight million gallons of fuel for delivery to McMurdo Station and other U.S. scientific outposts in the Antarctic. The 6 foot icebreaking capability ship recently underwent a three year, $90 million overhaul intended to give its 37-year-old hull another seven to 10 years of service.

The Coast Guard says the ship conducted sea trials in the Arctic this past summer, "testing propulsion machinery, conducting emergency drills, and qualifying crewmembers in individual watchstations." The ship spent about six years in an inactive state, entering caretaker status in July 2006.

The National Science Foundation, which operates McMurdo Station, has since 2006 contracted with the Swedish government or a Russian company to annually cut a channel through the sea ice of McMurdo Sound.

The Coast Guard's other heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Sea, went on inactive status last winter, tied to a pier in Seattle while the Coast Guard is "trying to determine what the future is for that ship," Vice Commandant Adm. John Currier told a House panel in June. That ship experienced a massive engine failure in 2010.

A 2010 study commissioned by the Coast Guard found that it needs three heavy and three medium icebreakers to fulfill its statutory requirements in polar regions, primarily in the Arctic, at an estimated cost of $4.14 billion. Maintaining a continuous presence would require six heavy and four medium icebreakers, for a cost of $6.93 billion.

The Coast Guard has started very preliminary activity for the acquisition of one new heavy icebreaker, with estimates for its construction reaching $1 billion. The Canadian government recently announced that the budget for an 8 foot icebreaking ship it has under construction, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, has nearly doubled to C$1.3 billion (approximately $1.22 billion).

Two Democratic senators, Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska), with the support of Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have proposed authorizing the Navy to build four heavy icebreakers, submitting an amendment to the fiscal national defense authorization act under consideration. The Navy would transfer complete ships to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard's medium icebreaker, the USCGC Healey, was funded through Navy appropriations, although in 2011, the Government Accountability Office's director of homeland security and justice told (.pdf) a House panel that it's unlikely that a Navy funding approach would again succeed. Among other things, the director, Stephen Caldwell, noted the different levels of concern about polar regions within the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Unlike the DoD, DHS (of which the Coast Guard is a component) has an immediate need for Arctic capabilities; the Pentagon has said the Arctic is of peripheral military interest in the short-term.

A November 2013 DoD Arctic strategy (.pdf), however, states that the Arctic "is at a strategic inflection point as its ice cap is diminishing more rapidly than projected," and that the Pentagon desires "a secure and stable region where U.S. national interests are safeguarded, the U.S. homeland is protected, and nations work cooperatively to address challenges."

For more:
- go to a Coast Guard statement about the Polar Star deployment to Antarctica

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