Since taking the helm of the Coast Guard a year and a half ago, Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft has traveled the country — and the world — stumping the service's case for another heavy icebreaker to back up the 40-year-old Polar Star.
The first step in that process began Wednesday, he announced, with a Federal Business Opportunities solicitation for the Polar Class Icebreaker Replacement Program, which went live just before noon.
"We have President Obama, in Alaska, saying we need to accelerate the build-out of icebreakers," he said at the annual Surface Navy Association Symposium outside Washington, D.C. "I'm pretty sure I heard an 's' at the end of that."
To start, the Coast Guard is holding an industry day and one-on-one meetings with contractors in March to discuss what they need, according to the FBO synopsis.
A notional schedule puts the contract award by fall 2019, with early production beginning the following year.
Details of the solicitation were not available, as access to the documents is limited to registered government contractors. Zukunft gave some details about the new ship class's requirements, but declined to go into further detail.
"We have no shore infrastructure, so that is a floating command platform," he said. It should also be able to do environmental response, safety at sea and and unmanned vehicle operations in the air and underwater.
Specifically, the new ships need to be able to continuously push through up to six feet of ice — but preferably eight — going at least 3 knots.
In ice-free waters, it will need a sustained speed of 15 knots, or the speed at max horsepower.
The new icebreakers must also be able to:
- Sail a range of 21,500 nautical miles at 12 knots.
- Go 80 days underway without replenishment.
- Run at least 3,300 operational hours a year.
- Visually evaluate ice conditions for 12 nautical miles in each direction.
- Land a range of military and federal helicopters.
- Hangar two Coast Guard helicopters or future unmanned systems.
A full list of requirements is available on the FBO web site.
A second icebreaker will be key to the Coast Guard's arctic strategy, Zukunft said, a mission his service has historically taken on. He's argued that two icebreakers are needed as a buddy system to assist should one become beset in ice.
"I do not recommend that the Navy goes to the aArctic, that the Navy invests in icebreakers," he said.
The U.S. has a long way to go to catch up to Russia's capabilities, he added, our No. 1 competitor in the aArctic. That country has 41 heavy icebreakers in service and 14 under construction, he said, while the U.S. has Polar Star and the medium icebreaker Healy, a scientific research ship. The heavy icebreaker Polar Sea is in an inactive status.
"We often come to this discussion of, well, we really can't afford it," Zukunft said. "Our [gross domestic product] is over eight times that of Russia — yet Russia's building 14."
"I do not advocate that we go after the Navy's shipbuilding budget. But right now, these icebreakers are strategic assets as well," he added.
Another announcement, with specifics on industry day dates and program requirements, is forthcoming, according to the FBO website.