Melting sea ice in the Arctic has increased shipping traffic and could open the region to more shipping, mining and oil drilling—increasing the potential for ships to be stuck in ice that still covers the region much of the year. To be prepared, the U.S. Coast Guard recently announced plans to acquire two new heavy icebreakers that could cost $1 billion each.


To be sure, increased mining and oil drilling will call for additional icebreakers, but so will the use of new shipping lanes. For example, Chinese cargo-shipper COSCO has announced plans to launch regular Asia-to-Europe sailings through the Arctic Ocean, which will significantly reduce travel time and fuel cost. Other countries, including Japan, Singapore and South Korea, reportedly also are preparing for future trans-Arctic shipping.


“Enormous expenditures on fuel, canal transit, security guard, personnel and vessel wear and tear can be saved,” Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency said, a Japan Times article reported last fall. “Cost-friendly routes will be extremely significant to COSCO Group in the current difficulties of (the) global maritime industry.”


The problem is that the U.S. Coast Guard’s operational polar icebreaking fleet currently includes one 399-foot heavy icebreaker, Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, and one 420-foot medium icebreaker, Coast Guard Cutter Healy. These cutters are designed for open-water icebreaking and feature reinforced hulls, specially angled bows and a system that allows for rapid shifting of ballast to use the cutters’ weight to provide leverage when ramming thick ice, the Coast Guard explains. The Coast Guard also has a second heavy icebreaker, Polar Sea, which is inactive.


President Barack Obama in September called for the United States to accelerate plans to buy at least one new heavy-duty icebreaker by 2020 after a visit to Alaska. That plan accelerates the timeline from a previously planned acquisition by 2022. The icebreaker’s ability to provide robust, polar-icebreaking capability will ensure “the U.S. can operate year-round in the Arctic Ocean,” the White House said.


As has been widely reported, while speaking at a recent event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft said a recent study concluded that the Coast Guard needed three heavy and three medium-sized icebreakers, but the current floor was at least two heavy icebreakers so one vessel could free the other if it became trapped in ice. It would also be too costly to buy and build just one icebreaker, he said.


With that in mind, Zukunft announced that the Coast Guard has plans to get information from companies about their ability to build and develop icebreakers which would be in use for 40 years, as well as to explore options such as leasing. He further noted that the Coast Guard has not finalized an acquisition strategy, but it hopes to release a draft request for proposals in the first quarter of fiscal 2017, and award a contract in the last quarter of fiscal 2018 or fiscal 2019.


Huntington Ingalls Industries, which built the newest U.S. icebreaker and delivered it in 1999, said it was “absolutely interested” in building icebreakers for the U.S. Coast Guard, Reuters reports. General Dynamics, another large U.S. military shipbuilder, has also expressed interest in the program, as have other shipyards, according to the Coast Guard.


What are your thoughts on shipping through the Arctic Ocean? Would use of these new shipping lanes have an impact on your supply chain?