Trump Orders Coast Guard To Look Into Building Nuclear-Powered Icebreakers Like Russia – The Drive

Posted: June 10, 2020 at 8:43 pm

There is also the possibility that future nuclear-powered Coast Guard icebreakers could find themselves in aggressive confrontations with Russian or other countries' ships, especially in the Arctic region. This is what is certainly driving the demand to explore potential defensive armament for America's next icebreakers.

Trump's memorandum doesn't mention any specific armament options for the Coast Guard to consider, but its own requirements for its latest heavy icebreaker have included keeping space available for the possible inclusion of weapons of some kind in the future. In 2017, Admiral Paul Zukunft, then-Commandant of the Coast Guard, also told members of Congress that his service was looking at adding both defensive and offensive armament, including anti-ship cruise missiles, onto future icebreakers.

While talk of Coast Guard cutters of any kind, icebreaking or not, armed with anti-ship missiles might seem unusual, the service did upgrade at least three Hamilton class cutters in the 1980s to be able to fire RGM-84 Harpoons. By the mid-1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, these ships had lost this capability, which you can read more about in this past War Zone piece. The entire class, of which two remain in U.S. service, also received additional defenses in the form of 20mm Mk 15 Phalanx Close-in Weapon Systems (CIWS) and Mk 38 25mm automatic cannon mounts.

Much of the rest of Trump's memorandum covers things the Coast Guard already appears to be doing or has done. The required assessments will examine fleet mixes to include at least three heavy icebreakers. The service has long said that it wants to acquire three medium icebreakers after it gets its trio of heavy types. The difference between the two categories is the thickness of ice they can plow through, with heavy designs being able to get through ice up to 10 feet thick, while the fulls of medium types can manage up to eight feet of ice.

"Use cases in the Arctic that span the full range of national and economic security missions (including the facilitation of resource exploration and exploitation and undersea cable laying and maintenance) that may be executed by a class of medium PSCs [Polar Security Cutters], as well as analysis of how these use cases differ with respect to the anticipated use of heavy PSCs for these same activities," the memo notes. "These use cases shall identify the optimal number and type of polar security icebreakers for ensuring a persistent presence in both the Arctic and, as appropriate, the Antarctic regions."

The Coast Guard, at present, only has one operational heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, which is aging and prone to major breakdowns, and one newer medium one, the USCGC Healy, that is still decades-old now.

"Based on the determined fleet size and composition, an identification and assessment of at least two optimal United States basing locations and at least two international basing locations," the memo adds. "The basing location assessment shall include the costs, benefits, risks, and challenges related to infrastructure, crewing, and logistics and maintenance support for PSCs at these locations. In addition, this assessment shall account for potential burden-sharing opportunities for basing with the Department of Defense and allies and partners, as appropriate."

The Coast Guard's plan, as it stands now, is to hopefully have taken delivery of all three conventionally-powered heavy icebreakers by 2026. Polar Star could also undergo a service life extension upgrade to keep it in service through at least 2025. There is no firm schedule yet for acquiring the additional medium icebreakers. Trump's memo says there needs to be "a ready, capable, and available fleet of polar security icebreakers that is operationally tested and fully deployable by Fiscal Year 2029," by which time Polar Star and Healy are both expected to be retired.

Trump's memorandum requires the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard to submit their respective reports to the President, by way of the Director of OMB and the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, within the next 60 days. So, it may not be long before we learn whether America's icebreaker plans have changed to include the purchase of its first-ever nuclear-powered types.

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