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Icebreakers cometh for US, Canada as Arctic opens wide

Nov 6, 2019 10:56 AM
VT Halter Marine will build America’s first polar security cutter, a 460-foot heavy icebreaker that will be tasked with shoring up the Coast Guard’s presence in the Arctic. Technology Associates Inc. of New Orleans is providing the design.

Courtesy VT Halter Marine/Technology Associates Inc.

VT Halter Marine will build America’s first polar security cutter, a 460-foot heavy icebreaker that will be tasked with shoring up the Coast Guard’s presence in the Arctic. Technology Associates Inc. of New Orleans is providing the design.

As Polar Star, America’s only operational heavy icebreaker, faltered again mechanically on its annual resupply mission to Antarctica last winter, lawmakers were finally voting to do something about it.

In mid-February, Congress approved $655 million to start construction on the Coast Guard’s first polar security cutter, which will replace Polar Star upon delivery in 2024. An additional $20 million was approved to purchase long-lead-time materials for a second heavy icebreaker.

“With the support of the administration and Congress, we plan to build a new fleet of six polar icebreakers — at least three of which must be heavy icebreakers — and we need the first new polar security cutter immediately to protect America’s needs in the Arctic,” the Coast Guard said in a prepared statement. “The United States is an Arctic nation with extensive national and global responsibilities. Our role in the Arctic is growing. Diminishing Arctic sea ice is expanding access to the region and attracting attention from both partner and rival states across the globe.”

Polar Star, home-ported in Seattle, has exceeded its planned 30-year life by over a decade and needs heavy maintenance to stay in service, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Coast Guard’s other heavy icebreaker, Polar Sea, isn’t operational but is used for parts for Polar Star.

In April, the industry plum to build the new 460-foot ship went to VT Halter Marine. The contract includes options for two more polar security cutters that would bring the total value of the deal to $1.9 billion. As the project got off the ground last year, a VT Halter team won a detail design and construction competition against Bollinger Shipyards and a group comprised of Philly Shipyard and Fincantieri Marinette Marine.

The national security cutter Midgett passes Diamond Head on Oahu in August on the way to its home port of Honolulu. Ingalls Shipbuilding delivered two NSCs to the Coast Guard in the past year.

U.S. Coast Guard photo

New Orleans-based Technology Associates Inc. is designing the ship. The design is based on the research vessel Polarstern II, being built for the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany.

With Caterpillar main engines in a diesel-electric system producing more than 42,500 horsepower, the polar security cutter will be capable of breaking through ice up to 8 feet thick. The newbuild will have accommodations for 186 crewmembers and a voyage endurance of 90 days.

Not to be left behind in the push for more Arctic capability, the government of Canada announced in early August that it would build six new icebreakers and add a third shipyard to the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS) to handle the work. That followed news in May that Ottawa was investing $15.7 billion to renew the Canadian Coast Guard fleet, with up to 16 multipurpose vessels to be built by Seaspan and two new Arctic and offshore patrol ships by Irving Shipbuilding.

“Demands on the Coast Guard will only grow as the impacts of climate change become more frequent and intense,” said Jonathan Wilkinson, minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. “By adding the new program icebreakers to the fleet, we are ensuring the women and men (of the Coast Guard) have the equipment they need to deliver icebreaking services in the Arctic, on the St. Lawrence waterway (and the Great Lakes), and on Canada’s East Coast.”

Ottawa then launched a competitive process to determine which shipyard to add to the NSS. The early and clear frontrunner was Quebec’s Chantier Davie shipyard, which in December 2018 delivered the first of three former anchor-handling tug supply (AHTS) ships purchased by Canada to be converted into icebreakers. CCGS Captain Molly Kool is the first new icebreaker floated by the Canadian Coast Guard in 25 years.

The future USS Minneapolis-St. Paul, the nation’s 21st littoral combat ship, is launched into the Menominee River in Marinette, Wis., in June. Fincantieri Marinette Marine builds the Freedom variant of the LCS, designated with odd numbers. Austal USA builds the Independence variant, which is designated with even numerals.


Courtesy Lockheed Martin

In late August, however, the Canadian government amended its criteria for a third shipyard after allegations of bias toward Davie concerning size requirements for the new icebreakers. Shipyards were initially required to show they could build vessels at least 24 meters wide (78.7 feet), but that would have disqualified all Ontario-based shipyards — their newbuilds must be 23.8 meters wide or less to traverse the St. Lawrence Seaway.

In a complaint to the Canadian International Trade Tribunal, Heddle Shipyards of Hamilton, Ontario, also said the 24-meter requirement didn’t make sense. That’s because the new icebreakers will measure 20 meters (65.6 feet) at the beam, allowing them to fit through the Seaway to operate in the Great Lakes.

After correcting the “inconsistency,” Public Service and Procurement Canada said shipyards will now be required to show they can build vessels that are at least 20 meters wide to be considered for the NSS. The length requirement was also reduced from 130 meters (426.5 feet) to 110 meters (360. 8 feet).

Away from the ice realm, defense-related developments continued at dozens of other North American shipyards in the past year as well. Here are few of the highlights:

• In May, General Dynamics NASSCO laid the keel for USNS John Lewis (T-AO 205), the Navy’s first John Lewis-class fleet replenishment oiler. Delivery is planned in late 2020. The San Diego shipyard also added a contract worth up to $1.6 billion to build the sixth and seventh ships in the expeditionary sea base (ESB) program, as well as an option for an eighth ship. Work on the new ESBs is scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2020, with delivery in mid-2023.

The bow, center and stern sections of Canada’s second Arctic offshore patrol ship, HMCS Margaret Brooke, are joined at Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in early May. Two other ships in the series will follow for the Royal Canadian Navy.

Courtesy Irving Shipbuilding

• Alabama-based Austal USA continued to produce Independence-variant littoral combat ships for the Navy. The shipyard delivered the trimaran USS Cincinnati (LCS 20), christened USS Kansas City (LCS 22) and launched USS Oakland (LCS 24). Austal also delivered the nation’s 10th expeditionary fast transport, USNS Burlington (EPF 10), in the fall of 2018, and successfully completed sea trials for USNS Puerto Rico (EPF 11) in August.

• Fincantieri Marinette Marine also got in the LCS action, delivering two Freedom-variant ships, USS Billings (LCS 15) and USS Indianapolis (LCS 17). Seven other ships in the monohull series are in various stages of construction at the Wisconsin shipyard.

• After a lull of nearly two years, Ingalls Shipbuilding resumed deliveries of Legend-class national security cutters to the Coast Guard. The seventh ship in the series, Kimball (WMSL 756), was transferred for service in September 2018, and Midgett (WMSL 757) followed in May. The Pascagoula, Miss., shipbuilder also received contracts for NSC 10 and NSC 11 while continuing work on Stone, scheduled for delivery in 2020.

• Louisiana-based Bollinger Shipyards added to its resume of Sentinel-class fast response cutters (FRCs) with five deliveries in the past year: Terrell Horne (WPC 1131), Benjamin Bottoms (WPC 1132), Joseph Doyle (WPC 1133), William Hart (WPC 1134) and Angela McShan (WPC 1135).

• In April, the government of Canada awarded a contract to Quebec-based Ocean Industries to build four tugboats for the Royal Canadian Navy under the NSS. The newbuilds will replace five Glen-class tugs and two Fire-class rescue boats based in British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

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