New icebreaker won’t have much time for the Arctic, says Coast Guard boss

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a polar-class icebreaker, transits Southeast Alaska waters, Nov. 24, 2018. The Healy is one of two ice breakers currently in U.S. service.

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a polar-class icebreaker, transits Southeast Alaska waters, Nov. 24, 2018. The Healy is one of two ice breakers currently in U.S. service. (Public domain photo by Lt. Kellen Browne/Coast Guard)

The Coast Guard expects to launch the first of three new icebreakers in 2024, but don’t expect to see much of it in Alaska.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said Tuesday the primary duty of the first icebreaker will be in the Antarctic, not the far north.

“Until that second or third (polar) security cutter, we won’t really have much of a game up there, in terms of presence,” Schultz told a U.S. House of Representatives transportation subcommittee.

The new icebreaker’s essential mission will be to clear a path for supply ships serving the McMurdo Station. It takes more than 100 days to get to Antarctica from North America, which would leave little time for trips to the Arctic. Schultz isn’t taking that lightly. He said physical presence on Arctic waters is vital for national security.

“In the polar regions, presence equals influence,” he said. “And your Coast Guard is the sole surface presence protecting our rights and projecting sovereignty.”

In April, the government awarded a contract for up to three icebreakers to VT Halter Marine, a shipyard in Mississippi. Halter recently released some design details. The 460-foot hull will be able to break ice up to 8 feet thick. It will accommodate 186 people for up to 90 days at a time.

Schultz said the cost is expected to total $1.9 billion for the three ships.

House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said that’s a concern for President Donald Trump.

“When I was at the White House a few weeks ago, the president was quite upset at the price tag per ship,” DeFazio said at the hearing.

A White House spokesperson did not respond to an email asking about the president’s views on the icebreaker contract.

The shipbuilder says it will deliver the third icebreaker by 2027.

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