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Design studies launch acquisition process for new heavy icebreaker

Jun 1, 2017 10:18 AM
Polar Star carves a resupply channel to McMurdo Station in Antarctica in January. The ship is the only heavy icebreaker currently available for Coast Guard duty.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Polar Star carves a resupply channel to McMurdo Station in Antarctica in January. The ship is the only heavy icebreaker currently available for Coast Guard duty.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s next heavy icebreaker should be capable of operating in polar waters, transiting the tropics in between and supporting a wide array of scientific and homeland security missions. The process of filling that tall order has fallen on five shipyards awarded contracts totaling $20 million for design studies and analysis.

The Coast Guard awarded the contracts in late February to Bollinger Shipyards LLC of Lockport, La.; Fincantieri Marine Group LLC of Washington, D.C.; General Dynamics NASSCO of San Diego, Calif.; Huntington Ingalls Inc. of Pascagoula, Miss.; and VT Halter Marine Inc. of Pascagoula, Miss.

According to the Coast Guard, the studies will identify design and systems approaches that best reduce overall costs and production timelines. The shipyards see it as an opportunity to review the Coast Guard’s wants and needs, and to determine what’s possible and practical. 

The initial requirements call for a vessel that is sized to transit the Panama Canal, can operate in air temperatures from -72 degrees Fahrenheit to 114 degrees, will survive in sea state 8 conditions, and supports scientific, defense, supply, search and rescue and other mission profiles. The Coast Guard is looking for a vessel that can break through 8 feet of ice at a continuous speed of 3 knots and operate for up to 90 days without replenishment.

“The study will help us better understand whether all the bells and whistles the Coast Guard is looking for can be combined into a vessel that still needs to have certain dimensions and other operational requirements,” said George A. Moutafis, vice president of programs for Fincantieri Marine Group.

A representative for Huntington Ingalls declined to comment. The three other shipyards did not respond to requests for interviews.

The program reflects Coast Guard requirements for at least two new heavy icebreakers to ensure continued access to the Arctic and Antarctic, and to support the country’s economic, commercial, maritime and national security needs. The Coast Guard and Navy are trying to close the gap with Russia, which has about 40 vessels capable of operating in polar waters, according to published reports.

America’s operational polar icebreaking fleet currently consists of Polar Star, a 399-foot heavy icebreaker commissioned in 1976, and Healy, a 420-foot medium icebreaker commissioned in 2000. Polar Star’s sister vessel, Polar Sea, was placed in inactive status in 2010.

Jointly staffed by Coast Guard and U.S. Navy personnel, the heavy polar icebreaker integrated program office will use the studies to refine the final system specifications. This collaborative approach has been used for previous projects, including the Navy’s acquisition of the landing craft-utility (LCU) amphibious transport ship and the T-AO(X) fleet oiler, which are being acquired under accelerated acquisition schedules.

The initial heavy icebreaker study contracts are for 12 months. The Coast Guard plans to award a single contract for design and construction in fiscal year 2019. The goal is to have the new icebreaker fully operational by fiscal year 2028.

Through the industry study process, the Coast Guard hopes to benefit from insights from the shipyards on construction and acquisition.

“The Coast Guard will have the powerhouses of the industry chiming in with ideas, and the Coast Guard will be able to take those ideas and combine them,” Moutafis said. “We will place a priority on the things that are important to the Coast Guard like life cycle costs, ease of maintenance and user-friendliness for the operators.”

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