Bad news, folks. If the U.S. had to muscle its way into regions choked with ice to deal with a recalcitrant foe, it’d have hard time.
The fact of the matter is that the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaker capability has dwindled big time, and the Navy has no icebreakers in its fleet.
At this time, the Coast Guard has one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star (WAGB 10) and one medium icebreaker, the Healy (WAGB 20) in service. According to a 2016 Congressional Research Service report, the Polar Star’s sister ship, the Polar Sea (WAGB 11), has been inoperable since 2010 after five of its diesel engines failed.
As a result, the United States has a very big problem. The Polar Star is down at the South Pole, resupplying the McMurdo Research Station. That means that the Healy is the only icebreaker available for operations in the Arctic.
The Polar Sea? Right now, it is being cannibalized to keep the Polar Star operable, according to a report from USNI News.
According to the “16th Edition of Combat Fleets of the World,” the Polar Sea was commissioned in 1976, while the Polar Star was commissioned in 1977. USNI noted that plans do not include beginning construction of new icebreakers until 2020, with them entering service in 2024 at the earliest.
If you’ve followed ship programs like the Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt-class destroyers, or the Gerald R. Ford, that date could be a best-case scenario. The Polar Sea’s operational life is expected to last until 2022, two years prior to the earliest date the new icebreakers would enter service.
Russia, on the other hand, has 41 icebreakers. In addition to maintaining a large fleet of icebreakers, Russia has been trying to winterize modern interceptors like the MiG-31 Foxhound and strike aircraft like the Su-34 Fullback, and its new icebreaker construction push includes nuclear-powered icebreakers.