ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The U.S. Coast Guard is expected to take possession of a new heavy icebreaker within five years and Alaska’s junior U.S. senator would like to see it spend time in U.S. waters.
Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan said Antarctic policy likely will shift the future icebreaker away from the Arctic missions it should be used for, the Alaska Journal of Commerce reported.
"I think we're too focused on Antarctica and not focused on our own sovereign interests here," Sullivan said.
The country’s only heavy icebreaker, the 43 year-old Polar Star, does much of its work on the other end of the world. It breaks ice and escorts supply vessels to the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station research center in Antarctica and returns to its homeport in Seattle for repair.
The 399-foot ship typically sails south shortly after Thanksgiving and returns around mid-March from the 11,000-mile round trip, said Peter West, a National Science Foundation spokesman, by email.
Foundation officials expect the new 460-foot icebreaker to take over the Polar Star’s Antarctic research duties.
“By Presidential Memorandum, the NSF is empowered to reach out to other agencies for cost reimbursable services in support of the (U.S. Antarctic Program, or USAP),” he wrote. “The USGS has the responsibility for the nation’s icebreaking and is committed to the McMurdo Station breakout mission on an annual basis for the foreseeable future.”
Policies directing Antarctic support from the Coast Guard are policies Sullivan hopes to change.
"I write the Coast Guard bill. I chair that subcommittee; we'll see," he said.
Sullivan chairs the Security Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation panel.
The Polar Star escorted one cargo ship to the McMurdo Station last year. In 2020, the icebreaker is scheduled to escort two cargo vessels and a tanker, said Coast Guard spokesman Senior Chief Petty Officer NyxoLyno Cangemi.
The Polar Star does not currently conduct Arctic missions.
A budget bill passed in February appropriated $655 million to fully fund one heavy icebreaker and $20 million for long-lead items to prepare for building a second.
The Navy on April 23 awarded a contract to Mississippi shipyard VT Halter Marine for building the vessels. The first is expected to be ready in 2024. If funded, a second is expected in 2025 and a third in 2027.
Other laws also direct the Coast Guard to support scientific research, Cangemi said by email. Diverting Coast Guard resources such as the Polar Star from the Antarctic mission would require an order from the White House, he wrote.
The science foundation reimbursed the Coast Guard over $49,000 per day for use of the Polar Star.
The Coast Guard was reimbursed nearly $33,000 per day for use of the medium-duty icebreaker Healy, which supports Arctic research, Cangemi said.