Current state of the Polar Star heavy icebreaker

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Adm. Paul Zukunft (Ret.), 25th Commandant of the Coast Guard, discusses the state of the U.S. icebreaker program, and why building new polar ships is imperative.


The Coast Guard’s only heavy icebreaker is showing its age and the risks that come along with it. During his tenure as Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Paul Zukunft (Ret.), denied a freedom of navigation operation for the 40-year-old ship. If the Polar Star were to be disabled in arctic waters, only the Russian Navy would be able to mount a rescue operation. In an interview with Government Matters, Zukunft told Francis Rose that building a replacement for the Polar Star is imperative.

“Very little has changed other than the fact the seas are changing at a much faster rate than we could have predicted. But that refurbishment bought us 10 years’ time, notionally, to acquire the first of a class of three heavy ice breakers,” Zukunft said.

“It was my vision when I departed the service was that we would be delivering that first ship in 2022. We have now found ourselves in a holding pattern, which means the timeline may very well slip, and we may look to stretch the Polar Star’s legs even further yet to bridge the gap [until] we bring the first of this class of ships online.”

 

Zukunft said that while the U.S can’t compete with the Russians in number of icebreakers, more are needed to secure the opening of new routes through the arctic.

“We can’t even compete with Russia. Russia does have a very expansive arctic coastline, but [they have] roughly 40 ice breakers to our two. Let’s look at it in a different aspect, and say can we afford one. Our GDP is 10 times that of Russia’s, yet here we are. The United States, this economic juggernaut, saying we can’t afford one. Whereas Russia is looking at this as the Suez Canal of the future…” Zukunft said.

“It is entertaining the idea to send ships through the northern sea route. It cuts the Asia to Europe transit time by more than a third and the savings there are significant. The only question is predictability.”