Icebreakers Under Construction

There are currently six icebreakers under construction in the world’s shipyards:

  • Construction of a large Russian icebreaker of the existing ARKTIKA class has been under way for more than 10 years, with commissioning expected in October 2006. The nuclear icebreaker is 522 feet long with a 100-foot beam. It is reported at 25,000 deadweight (deadweight is a measure of cargo capacity, whereas displacement is usually reported for icebreakers), making it the largest nuclear icebreaker in the world. This icebreaker was originally named URALS but now appears to be named 50 LET POBEDY.

  • Two offshore icebreakers are being built at Aker Yards for the Sakhalin 2 project (offshore oil development in the Russian Far East).

  • One terminal icebreaker at Aker Yards is planned for the Sakhalin 1 project (offshore oil development in the Russian Far East).

  • Two Baltic Sea escort icebreakers (diesel powered) are under construction at Baltic Shipyard, Russia, for Rosmorport of Russia.

Five of the six icebreakers under construction are being built for specific commercial operations. The sixth, the Russian nuclear icebreaker, is being built for general Arctic operations support.

Shipbuilding for Arctic operations is focused primarily on building ice-strengthened commercial ships such as oil tankers, offshore supply vessels, bulk carriers, and container ships. Ice-strengthened liquefied natural gas tankers are also being planned.


The mission deployment of U.S. polar icebreakers has evolved in the last half-century. During World War II, the Arctic became for the first time a national security concern, and this perspective of the Arctic, as a zone of defense, extended seamlessly into the Cold War period. The operational focus for icebreakers was concentrated in these years almost exclusively on defense-related logistics. Postwar Antarctic operations took on a similar military character, where even after the International Geophysical Year (1955-1956) the massive logistics of the U.S. science program continued to be conducted as military operations. The beginnings of mission change were indicated by the Navy’s decision to leave the icebreaker business in the 1960s, which signaled the end of polar logistics as a naval mission of importance. By the 1980s, science activities overshadowed the remaining defense logistics mission in Greenland, where the abandonment of bases left only Thule with a requirement for sealift. The need for better polar science capabilities was a key theme of the 1984 Polar Icebreaker Requirements Study.

Increasing interest in polar research brought new users, from the Department of Defense science establishment and from civilian agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Maritime Administration, and academic associates of their programs. In 1970 the National Science Foundation assumed overall management of the U.S. Antarctic Program. The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker fleet began to be operated with other agencies requesting specific cruises and funding the fuel and variable costs on a reimbursable basis.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, POLAR STAR and POLAR SEA alternated deployments to Antarctica each year to conduct the McMurdo break-in, Palmer Station resupply, and other logistics and science tasking. On two occasions a second Polar class ship went south either in standby status (1988) or to perform Antarctic Treaty inspections (1995). Until decommissioning in 1987 (after her twenty-ninth Antarctic deployment), GLACIER also spent several months of the Antarctic summer each year conducting science support in the vicinity of the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula. The POLAR SEA and POLAR STAR performed the heavy icebreaking associated with the break-in, while GLACIER generally operated in open water, the marginal ice zone, and sea ice where demanding icebreaking was rarely required.

In the western Arctic—the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas—either POLAR STAR or POLAR SEA usually deployed during the summer and fall months each year. The work was almost entirely research related in a variety of disciplines, for USGS, NOAA, and both classified and unclassified work for the Office of Naval Research. Both POLAR STAR and POLAR SEA conducted a series of trafficability studies, under MARAD sponsorship, to measure shipboard stresses and icebreaking performance in various ice conditions. These cruises occurred in the Chukchi and Bering Seas in both summer and winter conditions. In 1984, POLAR SEA was nipped between two moving ice sheets north of Prudhoe Bay for five days and faced the prospect of wintering over. Fortunately, a combination of transferring weight aft and using full power, the heeling system, and an ice anchor implanted off the stern freed the ship. The trafficability research program sought to provide design knowledge for icebreaking commercial ships, especially for crude oil transport, and was completed by the late 1980s.

The annual resupply of Thule Air Base necessitated the presence of an icebreaker in the eastern Arctic every summer, although ice conditions were variable and actual vessel ice escort was needed infrequently. This mission requirement—“Operation Pacer Goose”—was satisfied easily by the East Coast-based NORTHWIND or WESTWIND, often in conjunction with research work for the International Ice Patrol, until 1988. From 1989 until 1993, either the POLAR STAR or the POLAR SEA was deployed from Seattle for Pacer Goose. Although research projects were usually inte-

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