9
Analysis of U.S. Current and Future Polar Icebreaking Needs

The current and anticipated needs for U.S. polar icebreakers have been discussed throughout this report. This chapter analyzes those needs and assesses how the current U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreaker fleet meets these needs today and will meet them in the future. If the current polar icebreaking capabilities are not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs then options for acquiring new polar icebreaking capability must be explored. The committee’s approach to this analysis is as follows:

  1. Identify polar icebreaking needs.

  2. Perform a “gap” analysis to determine which needs are being met and which needs are not being met in the short and long terms.

  3. Identify potential options for meeting the needs that the gap analysis shows are not being met now or will not be met in the future.

NEEDS ANALYSIS

Earlier chapters discuss various needs in some depth. The summary list includes the following:

  • Assured access independent of ice conditions

  • McMurdo resupply

  • Central Arctic Ocean science

  • Onboard scientific research

  • Continental shelf mapping—United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

  • Sovereignty and presence

  • Escort and assistance

  • Search and rescue

  • Maritime law enforcement

  • Environmental protection and oil spill response

  • National defense and homeland security

  • Facilitation of commerce

  • Treaty monitoring

  • Marine casualty response

Not all needs apply, or apply in the same manner, to the Arctic and the Antarctic. In analyzing how well needs are met, the two regions are discussed separately.

Before discussing how well these needs are met in the two regions, the status of the U.S. icebreaker fleet, discussed elsewhere in more detail, is reviewed here. The fleet consists of four ships. The two Polar class ships are at the end of their operational design service lives. In the last few years, age-and wear-related problems have become apparent. The vessels are now inefficient to operate because multiple vital ship systems require substantial and increasing maintenance, and their technological systems are becoming increasingly obsolete. The POLAR STAR is in caretaker status, moored indefinitely at a U.S. Coast Guard pier in Seattle and sustained by a crew of 35.

The POLAR SEA is completing sea trials after undergoing a modest upgrade during 2006. She appears to be mission capable for the next three to five years. (Plans are being made for the POLAR SEA to participate in the 2007 McMurdo break-in.) Consequently, the HEALY will be the only mission capable icebreaker for the coming decade and more. The ice-strengthened ship PALMER is expected to be mission capable for some years; however the National Science Foundation (NSF) is considering a PALMER replacement vessel.

Table 9.1 assesses the capability of the only ships that are available to meet icebreaking needs in the Arctic region, the HEALY and the POLAR SEA. Note that the POLAR SEA is, at present, only capable for the short term (three to five years), and the POLAR STAR at this point is in caretaker status. At first glance, Table 9.1 might be interpreted to imply that there is substantial robust icebreaking capability for the Arctic. That is misleading. The HEALY is not capable of operating independently in heavy ice conditions



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Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs 9 Analysis of U.S. Current and Future Polar Icebreaking Needs The current and anticipated needs for U.S. polar icebreakers have been discussed throughout this report. This chapter analyzes those needs and assesses how the current U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreaker fleet meets these needs today and will meet them in the future. If the current polar icebreaking capabilities are not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs then options for acquiring new polar icebreaking capability must be explored. The committee’s approach to this analysis is as follows: Identify polar icebreaking needs. Perform a “gap” analysis to determine which needs are being met and which needs are not being met in the short and long terms. Identify potential options for meeting the needs that the gap analysis shows are not being met now or will not be met in the future. NEEDS ANALYSIS Earlier chapters discuss various needs in some depth. The summary list includes the following: Assured access independent of ice conditions McMurdo resupply Central Arctic Ocean science Onboard scientific research Continental shelf mapping—United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Sovereignty and presence Escort and assistance Search and rescue Maritime law enforcement Environmental protection and oil spill response National defense and homeland security Facilitation of commerce Treaty monitoring Marine casualty response Not all needs apply, or apply in the same manner, to the Arctic and the Antarctic. In analyzing how well needs are met, the two regions are discussed separately. Before discussing how well these needs are met in the two regions, the status of the U.S. icebreaker fleet, discussed elsewhere in more detail, is reviewed here. The fleet consists of four ships. The two Polar class ships are at the end of their operational design service lives. In the last few years, age-and wear-related problems have become apparent. The vessels are now inefficient to operate because multiple vital ship systems require substantial and increasing maintenance, and their technological systems are becoming increasingly obsolete. The POLAR STAR is in caretaker status, moored indefinitely at a U.S. Coast Guard pier in Seattle and sustained by a crew of 35. The POLAR SEA is completing sea trials after undergoing a modest upgrade during 2006. She appears to be mission capable for the next three to five years. (Plans are being made for the POLAR SEA to participate in the 2007 McMurdo break-in.) Consequently, the HEALY will be the only mission capable icebreaker for the coming decade and more. The ice-strengthened ship PALMER is expected to be mission capable for some years; however the National Science Foundation (NSF) is considering a PALMER replacement vessel. Table 9.1 assesses the capability of the only ships that are available to meet icebreaking needs in the Arctic region, the HEALY and the POLAR SEA. Note that the POLAR SEA is, at present, only capable for the short term (three to five years), and the POLAR STAR at this point is in caretaker status. At first glance, Table 9.1 might be interpreted to imply that there is substantial robust icebreaking capability for the Arctic. That is misleading. The HEALY is not capable of operating independently in heavy ice conditions

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Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs TABLE 9.1 Assessment of U.S. Polar Icebreaker Fleet to Meet Icebreaking Needs in the Arctic Arctic Need HEALY POLAR SEA (short-term) Assured access independent of ice conditions Limited icebreaking Limited remaining service life and reliability Deep Arctic science Limited icebreaking Limited science facilities Onboard scientific research Adequate Limited science facilities Continental shelf mapping—UNCLOS Adequate Inadequate Sovereignty and presence Adequate Adequate Escort and assistance (e.g., Thule, Northwest Passage) Limited Adequate Treaty enforcement Capablea Capablea Search and rescue Adequate Adequate Maritime law enforcement (e.g., fisheries) Capablea Capablea Environmental protection Capablea Capablea National defense and homeland security Capablea Capablea Facilitation of commerce Capablea Capablea aThe ship is capable of supporting these missions, but may require specialized crew training and/or personnel augmentation, provided that assured access is available. typical of the central Arctic because of her limited icebreaking capabilities. Although nominally available for Arctic operations, POLAR SEA will likely be committed to the McMurdo break-in for much of her available operational time, to save costs and to ration her current capability. There is scant capability to meet the need for assured access independent of ice conditions and for support of central Arctic Basin science. Canadian icebreakers cut the channel into Thule. With current assets the United States has little icebreaker capability to “repay” Canada in kind. Although the HEALY has at least a limited capability to address the full range of needs, the ship is fully committed to the increasing demands for science and is often deployed far from U.S. Arctic waters. If the POLAR SEA is dedicated to the McMurdo break-in and HEALY is dedicated to science support, other Arctic needs such as sovereignty and presence, escort and assistance, and search and rescue will be supported only by HEALY and in areas where the ship is directed by research agencies. A single icebreaker may be able to address individual mission needs sequentially, but cannot fulfill all these needs simultaneously. One ship cannot be in two places at the same time. The U.S. Antarctic needs are listed in Table 9.2; they overlap but differ from those in the Arctic. Reliable, long-term icebreaker support to perform the McMurdo break-in is the most challenging Antarctic need. The POLAR SEA can address most Antarctic needs adequately in the short term, although until ice conditions improve in McMurdo Sound, it is risky to depend on one ship, even a Polar class ship. A chartered foreign icebreaker, KRASIN, has been employed as the assisting (2005) and as the primary (2006) icebreaker for the McMurdo break-in. Presumably, it was the most attractive of the ships available for charter. This ship was commissioned about the same time as the U.S. polar ships. The committee had no access to its maintenance records, but noted that the broken propeller blade was not fixed by the Navy dive team that was sent to repair it. This demonstrates that a charter guarantees neither lower costs nor more operational assurance than use of U.S. vessels. In any case, the TABLE 9.2 Assessment of U.S. Polar Icebreaker Fleet to Meet Icebreaking Needs in the Antarctic Antarctic Need POLAR SEA (short term) Foreign Charter PALMER Assured access independent of ice conditions Limited remaining service life and reliability Not appropriate Limited icebreaking McMurdo resupply Limited remaining service life and reliability KRASIN Not capable Onboard scientific research Limited facilities None Adequate Sovereignty and presence Adequate Not appropriate Limited Treaty monitoring Adequate Not appropriate Capablea Environmental protection Capablea Not appropriate Limited aThe ship is capable of supporting these missions, but may require specialized crew training and/or personnel augmentation, provided that assured access is available.

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Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs KRASIN is reportedly unavailable in 2007 and beyond. The prospect of chartering reliable icebreakers on a short-term basis is poor, due to obsolescence of some of the Soviet-era Russian fleet, their use to take tourists to the North Pole, and increasing worldwide demand for ice-capable vessels to support Arctic oil and gas exploration and development. In this environment, annual foreign charters cannot reasonably be expected to provide assured access or environmental protection and do not provide the U.S. presence. The committee is unaware of any Polar class vessel that is owned by a private U.S. organization. The ice-strengthened ship PALMER possesses some capability to meet U.S. Antarctic needs other than the McMurdo break-in. However, as in the Arctic, the demand for research platform time is increasing and PALMER is already fully committed to a science program. The committee concludes this analysis by observing that all current fleet and charter options are short term in nature; there is no long-term capability in the current U.S. fleet to address Antarctic needs. GAP ANALYSIS The committee concludes that the most serious gaps— that is, the most serious needs that are unmet in the short and long terms—are the following: Ability to reliably perform the McMurdo break-in (reliable control); U.S. Coast Guard missions in the Arctic; and Assured access to ice-covered seas independent of ice conditions. While all needs are important, some are more so when national security and/or geopolitical concerns are considered. In the Antarctic, given our long-standing and important commitment to the area, the McMurdo break-in is the essential gap to be addressed. HEALY cannot perform the McMurdo break-in because this ship cannot operate independently in ice conditions that have been encountered in McMurdo Sound for the past several years. In addition, diverting the HEALY to perform the McMurdo break-in significantly impacts Arctic science missions. The United States must have the reliably controlled ships to deal with the most difficult ice conditions; in some years, this requires two ships. In the Arctic, the need to accomplish traditional U.S. Coast Guard missions (and thereby project U.S. sovereignty and presence) constitutes a critical, unfilled gap. The U.S. Coast Guard has abandoned using polar icebreakers for regular patrols along the Alaskan coastline. Although a budget for icebreaker crews, training, and other support for ship operations exists, there is no funding to deploy the icebreakers for patrol missions. The U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreakers remain at the pier unless other agencies “purchase” operational icebreaker days. The committee believes that these patrols are important to our domestic and national interests and should be resumed. The third gap is the unmet need for assured access to ice-covered seas independent of ice conditions in both polar regions. The HEALY is not as powerful as a Polar class ship and cannot ensure timely access to some Arctic areas during the shoulder seasons and to the deep Arctic. One ship is insufficient to fulfill the full range of missions across the two polar regions. These gaps are complementary in the sense that the one or more ships addressing a particular need may simultaneously be serving another (a ship deployed to perform a science mission may be near enough to divert to provide timely response to an oil spill). Each ship can act as a backup for the others in some situations at some times. In addition, all U.S. government-owned ships assert U.S. presence wherever they are.

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