The long-awaited polar icebreaker is inching closer to fruition after weathering budget uncertainty, according to a Coast Guard official who told Congress on Wednesday that a contract award is expected near the end of the year.
As the aging Polar Star picks up the work, Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy Rear Adm. John Nadeau was asked at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation hearing about the current timetable to have a detailed design of the new icebreaker nailed down and start construction.
“We’re very grateful for the fantastic support we’ve had from Congress and the administration to provide us the funding to recapitalize our 40-year-old icebreaker, provide the nation the capability it needs to expand in the Arctic as those waters become more and more active,” Nadeau told lawmakers.
“With the funding we received, the $650 million, we were able to move out and now, if all goes according to plan — and it’s going according to plan — we have an integrated project office set up with the Navy to make sure we incorporate best practices of both services in terms of acquisitions. And we would expect to award the contract fourth quarter of this year.”
Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) noted the GAO recommendation that the Coast Guard needs to have a business plan in place before starting construction of the polar icebreaker. “Does Coast Guard plan to follow that recommendation?” he asked.
“I’m not the acquisition professional,” Nadeau replied. “That’s probably something I’d have to take back and bring back to you.”
At a November hearing before the same subcommittee, GAO Acquisition and Sourcing Management Director Marie Mak said that “while we all agree with the Coast Guard that it is critical to proceed quickly, as quickly as possible to replace the Polar Star, it has to be done with a realistic schedule.”
The GAO found that while the Coast Guard “completed design studies, ice trials and spoke to industry on key technologies, they did not systematically assess the maturity and risk associated with these technologies,” Mak said.
“Given that this type of icebreaker has not been built in the U.S. for over four decades, and that it has unique requirements to operate in extreme conditions, such as being able to traverse both poles year-round, we believe it is important to not underestimate the effort required to develop the cutters’ technologies,” she added. “The best way to address this is for an independent, objective group to assess the maturity of each technology, which then lays out the potential risk and allows the Coast Guard to put in place appropriate mitigation strategies.”
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Michael Haycock, assistant commandant for acquisition, said at that hearing that the USCG is “moving out at an accelerated program to provide these national assets quickly and as affordably as we can,” noting that an integrated program office with the Navy would “leverage each service’s experience and lessons learned across similar shipbuilding programs.”
The admiral acknowledged “the urgency expressed by the administration and Congress” and the “challenging schedule” to move forward quickly. “However, we are confident that our acquisition approach and our risk-reduction efforts will position the integrated program office to deliver the first polar security cutter as soon as possible,” Haycock said. “And prudence demands that we continue investing in a modernized Coast Guard.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, Nadeau said the icebreaker project is “marching along, and we have everything we need to keep going on track.”
Ranking Member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) asked that the Coast Guard report back to the committee on the recommendation a detailed design be completed before moving to the construction phase.
The Coast Guard is focused on a “6-3-1 approach” to recapitalize the polar icebreaking fleet: six icebreakers total, three of those with heavy-duty icebreaking capability, and one needed ASAP.