When the Coast Guard starts rolling out a new generation of heavy icebreakers on the Gulf Coast, the ships will be heading for a familiar port in the Pacific Northwest.
“I am pleased to announce that Seattle, Washington, will be the home of the Coast Guard’s new Polar Security Cutters,” Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the Coast Guard, said Monday in a statement. “The Pacific Northwest has been the home of our icebreaking fleet since 1976, and I am confident that the Seattle area will continue to provide the support we need to carry out our critical operations in the polar regions.”
Heavy icebreakers come into play for guaranteeing access to Antarctica for supply deliveries, and supporting U.S. maritime security interests at high latitudes in the north as well as the south. But the current state of America’s fleet of heavy icebreakers is a source of concern.
That fleet has dwindled to one aging ship, the 43-year-old Polar Star, which has suffered through a string of breakdowns in recent years. During last year’s deployment to Antarctica, the ship experienced two flooding incidents and the loss of a gas turbine. This March, a team of Coast Guard and Navy divers had to patch a breach in the hull.
Meanwhile, the Polar Star’s sister ship, the Polar Sea, is out of commission and kept around only for spare parts. And the Coast Guard’s medium icebreaker, the Healy, isn’t capable of taking on Antarctic missions.
Fortunately, help is on the way: In April, VT Halter Marine of Pascagoula, Miss., was awarded a $745.9 million contract to take care of the detailed design and construction of the first next-generation Polar Security Cutter. That ship should be delivered by mid-2024, with financial incentives for early delivery.
If the Defense Department exercises options for the delivery of two more heavy icebreakers, the total contract value rises to $1.9 billion.
The Coast Guard said it conducted a detailed analysis to identify locations that could accommodate the next-generation icebreakers, and based on operational and logistical needs, Seattle was determined to be the appropriate homeport for the first three new ships.
In a statement, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Seattle’s continued status as the nation’s heavy-icebreaker homeport was “great news.” Cantwell is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Coast Guard.
“Homeporting new icebreakers in Puget Sound shows the significant role Washington state has to play in securing our waters and protecting our environment in the Arctic. The Puget Sound region supports a cutting-edge maritime workforce, which is poised to meet the needs of these new world-class vessels,” Cantwell said. “I am excited to welcome new polar icebreakers and their Coast Guard crews to Seattle in the near future.”