A version of this ICN story was co-published with NBC News
Coast Guard crews are known for keeping their cool in high-stress situations. But when Lt. Samuel Krakower stepped into the engine room of the Polar Star last Jan. 16—midsummer in Antarctica—the scene was frantic.
Icy water was pouring through the hull of the rugged ship, a 42-year-old workhorse on its annual mission to cut a channel through thick ice to the United States’ scientific research hub at McMurdo Station.
Each minute, 20 gallons of water flooded in, rising toward the feet of the ship’s engineers as they stood on a raised platform, working urgently to seal a leaking shaft between the ship’s propellers that had been knocked loose by a chunk of ice.
“Everyone was in panic mode,” Krakower recalled. Working quickly, the savvy crew was able to stop the leak for long enough to apply a sealant to the gap, fashioning a fix in 30 hours that could have taken weeks in dry dock. When the ship limped into harbor, the chief engineer slept for 18 hours.
The narrowly averted disaster is emblematic of the broader dangers facing the Coast Guard’s entire polar mission, which encompasses everything from gathering scientific data and rescuing ships stuck in ice to responding to oil spills. Each of those tasks hinges on the rough, tough work of breaking through ice that waxes and wanes on the Arctic Ocean and surrounds Antarctica.
The American icebreaker fleet is in a perilous state, and not just in moments of high drama.
It has just two operational icebreakers, and experts in and out of the Coast Guard agree that isn’t enough to fully support the nation’s interests in the polar regions, where climate change is rapidly increasing the need for a robust presence. Only one of those ships—the Polar Star—can break the thickest ice, and it’s 12 years past its expected end of life. And its mission is in Antarctica, not the Arctic, where temperatures are rising most dramatically and where the melting of the ice is most challenging as global warming opens up new channels of commercial and military opportunity.
The Coast Guard’s most recent review found that it needs six new icebreakers—three heavy icebreakers and three medium class—to fulfill its mission, and that it needs one delivered as soon as possible to replace the Polar Star. It will take years to design and build replacement icebreakers and will cost billions of dollars.
Despite decades of warnings from studies and blunt congressional testimony, and considerable bipartisan political support, progress has been painfully slow.
Efforts to grow the icebreaker fleet began under the Obama administration, and, in a rare example of continuity, gained momentum under President Donald Trump. But Trump’s mercurial nature has left the Coast Guard’s advocates unsure of how steadfast his support is.
Now, as a lame duck Congress returns to Washington, lawmakers face a crucial decision: whether to approve $750 million for the construction of a new icebreaker or to divert those funds for the construction of a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Congress has until Dec. 7 to settle the spending impasse or face a partial government shutdown. [Update: The impasse over the spending plan led to a five-week government shutdown. An agreement finally signed on Feb. 15 included funding for the design and construction of one heavy icebreaker.]
“America’s only heavy icebreaker, the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, is more than 40 years old and must be replaced by the new Polar Security Cutter,” said Vice Adm. Daniel B. Abel, U.S. Coast Guard deputy commandant for operations. “We need the first new Polar Security Cutter immediately to meet America’s needs in the Arctic.”
Experts who have long watched this process are hoping funding for the icebreakers finally comes through—before it’s too late. Even on an optimistic schedule, the earliest a new heavy icebreaker could be in the Antarctic is at least five years from now, and an additional icebreaker for the Arctic would take about 10 years.
The state of the current fleet “says that the largest, strongest, most powerful nation in the world is not prepared to deal with its own issues in the polar regions,” said Michael Sfraga, director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center. “We often count on the fact that the United States can stand on its own. Here is one area where we simply can’t.”
On the Polar Star, Close Calls and No Backup
This year’s close call on the Polar Star was just one of many times in the past decade when the icebreaker could have been lost on its Antarctic mission.
Two years earlier, one of the ship’s generators shorted out and began smoking. An engineer used a surfboard repair kit to fashion a replacement part. It was one of four incidents on that trip that was classified as a “general emergency,” meaning that the crew and ship were in serious danger.
The beating the Polar Star takes on Operation Deep Freeze, its annual Antarctic mission, keeps it docked much of the rest of the year while engineers repair the damage. It does not travel to the Arctic, though theoretically it could in an emergency—as long as it’s not thousands of miles away in Antarctica, or in dry dock.
That leaves the Healy, a less powerful middleweight icebreaker, to handle the Arctic. It was built in 2000 and is expected to live for another 12 years, but it mostly plays a scientific role—including collecting data on climate change, which is showing up clearly in the steadily shrinking perimeter and thickness of the ocean’s ice. (A third icebreaker, the Polar Sea, was pulled out of commission years ago and is suitable only for salvage—a big bin of spare parts.)
An increasingly ice-free Arctic is inviting more ship traffic into northern passages that are now open for longer periods of time, and by extension, courting more danger. There are risks of ships running aground, spilling oil or stranding cargos, crews and even passengers on massive pleasure cruises, which began traversing the Northwest Passage in 2016. There are worries about illegal fishing and smuggling.
Even more profoundly, maritime and Arctic experts say icebreakers must fill a crucial military gap, bolstering the United States’ sovereign presence where a new Great Game is about to emerge.
It’s one thing to worry about a ship running aground, when nations might be expected to cooperate, even sharing icebreakers to respond to an environmental or humanitarian crisis. It might be quite another if a rival state decided to encroach on the U.S. exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles offshore, or step up a military show of force. The presence—or absence—of an icebreaker then could send a much more telling message of strength or weakness, according to more than a dozen polar and military experts interviewed for this article.
Russia, in particular, has stepped up its production of polar icebreakers to expand its regional dominance and fulfill President Vladimir Putin’s vision of the Arctic as “the future” of Russia. With significantly more Arctic real estate to cover, Russia’s fleet of icebreakers numbers around 40, and it’s growing. China, Japan and South Korea are also constructing icebreakers as they take advantage of shipping channels opening in the polar North.
“The reality is that the United States has ignored the Arctic,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who is among a cohort of federal politicians that has been advocating for an expanded icebreaker fleet. “We have forfeited what will be the major sea route between Asia and Europe. Control of the ocean will be ceded to Russia and China. … All the security issues, the safety issues—all of those will be in jeopardy.”
Should something happen to the Healy while on its Arctic mission, the options are grim. Other allies could help—in addition to Russia’s fleet, Canada has a sizeable icebreaker fleet. But the first choice would be a self-rescue, meaning that the Polar Star would have to go all the way north in relief, steered by its own namesake.
“We’re the greatest maritime power in the world and we’re just hoping that a ship built in the `70s can last,” said Heather Conley, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who focuses on the Arctic.
Arctic Melting Sets Off Alarm Bells
Paradoxically, the rapid melting of sea ice as the earth warms has not made the military’s icebreaking mission easier—it has only increased the need for icebreakers as waterways are more accessible than ever. The ice itself is becoming less predictable. The urgency of scientific explorations has increased. Maritime traffic is on the rise. So is demand for oil and gas drilling.
In ways not paralleled since World War II, when the Arctic became an essential shipping route to supply the Soviet war effort against Hitler, the risks are rising as the regional dynamic shifts.
In 1941, the year the U.S. entered the war, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote a note to his treasury secretary: “I want the world’s greatest icebreakers.”
By 1944, the year of D-Day, the U.S. had built seven icebreakers in a Los Angeles shipyard. Three were lent to the Soviets to break ice across the Arctic Ocean so the U.S. could deliver much-needed supplies. The others were used to support the construction of an airfield in Greenland. These ships would represent the peak of the United States’ ice-breaking prowess, and the biggest fleet in the world.
By the time Polar Star and the Polar Sea—both Polar-class heavy icebreakers—were built in the mid-1970s, the WWII-era icebreakers were showing their age. In the mid-1980s, the Coast Guard found that they needed to be replaced and recommended a fleet of four additional icebreakers.
Coast Guard Capt. Lawson Brigham, who was captain of the Polar Sea from 1993 to 1995, was one of the authors of the 1984 report. “We got the process rolling and it was enough to get one ship,”—the Healy, in 2000—”but by then the two Polar-class ships were 25 years old,” he said. “We should have started then to replace them.”
That never happened.
The Coast Guard’s budget for acquisitions had been languishing for decades by then. “During that time, not only was the icebreaker fleet aging but everything was as well,” said retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. Roger Rufe.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Coast Guard was one of a number of organizations to fall under the umbrella of the newly formed Homeland Security Agency. The service saw an infusion of funds for acquisitions, but icebreaking also had to compete with the nation’s anti-terrorism and border security needs.
With the Arctic and Antarctic falling in the “out of sight, out of mind” category, it was easier to get funding for other Coast Guard needs, like ships to intercept drug runners and migrants.
Meanwhile, a steady drumbeat of studies and reports by the Coast Guard, the National Academies of Sciences, the Congressional Research Service and other groups were finding that the icebreaker fleet was aging to a dangerous point, just as the need for the ships was increasing.
“It’s a long, tortuous history,” said Brigham. “The reports all paint the same picture: We need X number of icebreakers to support our national interest in the Arctic and Antarctic.”
The alarm bells were particularly strong in 2007. Arctic sea ice levels declined to record lows—38 percent below the average since the late 1970s. At the same time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report showing that losses from land-based ice on Greenland and Antarctica were contributing to sea level rise.
The same year, a National Academies of Sciences report found that the Polar Star and the Polar Sea “are becoming inefficient to operate … require substantial and increasing maintenance efforts to keep vital ship systems operational, and technological systems are becoming increasingly obsolete. This situation has created major mission readiness issues.”
A few vocal advocates in Congress—including the delegations from Alaska, Washington and California—raised the issue at every opportunity, but the scales didn’t tilt.
It always came down to money.
“I am concerned the Coast Guard does not have the resources and assets it needs to carry out increased operations in this region,” Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) said in a July 2008 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. “We are in a five-nation race in the Arctic, and running fifth.”
“We are losing ground in the global competition,” echoed then-Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen in his testimony at the same hearing. “My strong message to you today is that, while U.S. strategic interests in the Arctic region expand, both domestically and internationally, our polar icebreaking capability is at risk.”
Presidential Trip to Alaska Brings Hope for New Ships
That began to change during President Barack Obama’s administration. Alice Hill, who served as senior counsel to the Department of Homeland Security secretary from 2009 to 2013, said “icebreakers were a pretty constant theme” during her time there, but no one knew how best to fund them amid competing priorities. “This was a huge challenge at DHS—these big acquisition programs,” said Hill. “Which need is more important, which is more necessary for national security?”
The budget for fiscal year 2013 included a noteworthy first step: the launching of a program to fund the acquisition of a new heavy icebreaker.
But the funding didn’t add up to a new ship—not even close. It always boiled down to “the urgent versus the important,” said Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Washington only works on the urgent and when it’s in a crisis.”
Each year, as the Coast Guard presented a five-year plan for funding the icebreakers, urgency was nowhere in sight.
Each new plan pushed completion into the future.
At the same time, the Obama administration was working to make the Arctic a diplomatic and strategic priority. With the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, tension in the region was rising.
Standing in front of Alaska’s scenic Seward Harbor in 2015 during a trip aimed at underlining the need for aggressive climate action, Obama said the changing Arctic demanded the United States increase its presence there.
The White House set a timeline—a new heavy polar icebreaker would be delivered by 2020. Having the president wade into the effort made all the difference, said Hill. “It got it unstuck,” she said.
In the budget for the fiscal year 2017—the final budget of the Obama administration—the icebreaker program received $175 million. Among other things, that paid for five contractors to spend a few million dollars assessing costs and risks—but it was not enough to begin the lengthy process of designing and building a type of ship that hasn’t been constructed in the United States for more than 40 years.
Obama’s legacy was a promise of progress, but little more.
The Emotional Rollercoaster of Government Funding
When President Trump released the first budget proposal of his presidency in March 2017, it included a major boost to defense spending, with one notable exception. The proposal included a $1.3 billion cut to the Coast Guard in order to fund a wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), one of Trump’s earliest backers, was among those who quickly criticized the decision, writing in a letter that it would “severely undermine U.S. national security.”
Congress ultimately restored the Coast Guard’s funding level so it remained flat from the year prior, and just two months later Trump was singing a different tune.
On a sunny day in May 2017, Trump addressed the graduating class of the Coast Guard Academy. “Out of the five branches of our armed services, it’s only the Coast Guard that has the power to break through 21 feet of rock-solid Arctic ice, right? … You’re the only ones. And I’m proud to say that under my administration, as you just heard, we will be building the first new heavy icebreakers the United States has seen in over 40 years. We’re going to build many of them,” Trump told the crowd to applause.
So began an emotional rollercoaster of sorts for the Coast Guard and its allies.
When the 2018 budget was finalized, it included $19 million for the Coast Guard’s icebreaker program and another $150 million to be funneled through the Navy —a sign that momentum toward building a new ship was continuing. It was a drop in the bucket compared with what came next.
When the Trump administration released its request for the fiscal year 2019 budget, it included $750 million for the construction of a new icebreaker. The Senate approved the funds, but the House stripped all of the icebreaker funds to build a $5 billion border wall instead.
As a House subcommittee discussed the bill, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) noted the absence of funding for the icebreaker. “The United States is at an increasing disadvantage in the Arctic compared to the Russian fleet and we can no longer afford to delay,” she said. “This is a major area of weakness in our national security.”
Rebranding a Program to Appeal to Trump as the Clock Ticks
The Coast Guard’s new commandant, Adm. Karl Schultz, hadn’t been in his official position for long when he started floating an idea: gain support for icebreakers by rebranding them.
Long known as the Polar Icebreaker (PIB) Program, Schultz proposed a new name, one that would more closely align the ships with the priorities of the Trump administration: the Polar Security Cutter Program.
“I mean, that’s really what we’re talking about: we’re talking about national sovereign interests up there, we’re talking about competition,” Schultz said at an event in August co-hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Coast Guard is the face of that competition.”
The name change also helped disassociate the ships from the previous climate-related messages of the Obama administration—something that couldn’t hurt in an administration where the president and many of his advisers deny climate change.
This year, there are several shipyards working on proposals in hopes of earning the contract to build the ships. Should the $750 million in funding fail to be appropriated in this budget, it could send a message to the industry that the U.S. is not serious about replacing and expanding the icebreaker fleet, which Rep. Garamendi said could be a death-blow to the whole program.
“It’s not only that some of that money will be needed immediately,” he said. “But without an actual commitment, going forward with the contract is going to be extremely difficult and it will clearly delay the program—and maybe kill it.”