The Senate Armed Services Committee recently completed markup of the FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and voted unanimously (27-0) to advance the bill to the Senate floor. The NDAA includes a provision authored by Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and co-sponsored by Senator Angus King (I-Maine) authorizing the procurement of up to six polar-class icebreakers, including polar-class heavy icebreakers and polar-class medium icebreakers.
The United States currently has only two operational polar icebreakers, the heavy icebreaker Polar Star – which was commissioned in 1976 – and the medium-duty Healy– which was designed for scientific research. According to Senator Sullivan, Russia has 41 governmental and privately owned conventional and nuclear icebreakers, with 11 additional icebreakers in development or planning, including three new nuclear-powered icebreakers to be completed by 2020. Relatedly, the USCG recently awarded fixed-price contracts for polar icebreaker design studies and analysis as part of its heavy icebreaker project.
Procurement of the new polar icebreakers is not a done deal – the NDAA only sets policy objectives and authorizes funding. Congress still has appropriate money to fund the activities authorized under the NDAA. Nonetheless, the U.S. Coast Guard is now one step closer to restoring its robust icebreaking capability.