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Second heavy icebreaker not necessary through 2022, says Coast Guard

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The Coast Guard can meet icebreaking demands in the Arctic through 2022 without reactivating the laid-up USCGC Polar Sea and the National Science Foundation has proven recourse to other icebreaking capability should the service's single operational heavy icebreaker be unable to break the annual channel to the main American research station in the Antarctic, concludes a Coast Guard analysis.

The Coast Guard is grappling with the problem of owning only two heavy icebreakers both older than their expected lifetime of three decades. One, the USCGC Polar Star, recently underwent a $90 million overhaul intended to give its 37-year-old hull another seven to 10 years of service.

The other, the USCGC Polar Sea, is tied up "cold iron" to Pier 36 in Seattle, officially inactive since November 2011 – although it's been effectively inactive since experiencing a catastrophic failure of one of its main propulsion diesel engines in April 2010.

In a business case analysis (.pdf) provided to FierceHomelandSecurity by the Coast Guard, the service doesn't actually recommend against undertaking an overhaul of the Polar Sea, but it says it can get by without it.

Arctic seasonal demands through 2022 can be met with existing and planned assets, the analysis says.

And although a second heavy icebreaker would provide a backup ship capable of carving the navigable channel to McMurdo Station annually necessary for resupplying the NSF Antarctic research outpost, "the cost of this redundant capability would come at the expense of more pressing and immediate operational demands," the analysis states. From 2007 until this year, the NSF has contracted with the Swedish government or a Russian company to break the channel.

The Polar Sea is in need of $99.2 million worth of repairs over three years should the Coast Guard try to extend its life for another 7 to 10 years, the analysis estimates. Due to the ship's age, annual operating costs would go up, from an estimated $36.6 million in the first year of resumed operations to $52.8 million in the tenth.

That means that the total cost of reactivating the heavy icebreaker for up to a decade – the overhaul, plus operating costs including reconstitution of a crew – would be between $573.9 million to as much as $751.7 million, the analysis states. The higher figure has a confidence level risk analysis figure of 90 percent.

As climate change causes accelerated warming in the Arctic, the Coast Guard anticipates an increased need for its presence in the area. A 2011 study commissioned by the Coast Guard concluded that the service will need at least three heavy and three medium icebreakers to fulfill its statutory requirements in polar regions, primarily the Arctic.

But, the Polar Sea business case analysis says the earlier study didn't assign a timeframe to when projected gaps in mission performance at high latitudes would start appearing, and that "current evidence is insufficient to conclude that significant or moderate changes would occur during the next seven to 10 years."

For more:
- download the USCGC Polar Sea business case analysis (.pdf)

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