A Pascagoula, Mississippi, shipbuilder has been awarded the contract to build the Coast Guard's long-awaited new icebreaker, an agreement worth up to $1.9 billion if an additional two ships are optioned.
The Coast Guard announced Tuesday that VT Halter Marine Inc. received the initial $746 million contract award to design and construct a first-in-class Polar Security Cutter, the service's first heavy icebreaker in more than 40 years.
In a contract award process that involved Naval Sea Systems Command, VT Halter Marine was selected over two other finalists, Bollinger Shipyards of Lockport, Louisiana, and a Philadelphia- and Wisconsin-based partnership between Philly Shipyard and Fincantieri Marinette Marine, according to The Associated Press.
The VT Halter Marine shipyard is known for making specialty vessels such as the U.S. Navy's Mark V patrol boat, the U.S. Army's logistics support vessel, oceanographic survey ships and commercial vessels like the state of Virginia's newest James River ferry.
Construction is slated to start in 2021, with delivery planned for 2024. But the contract includes financial incentives for an earlier delivery, according to the Coast Guard.
"With the strong support of both the Trump administration and Congress, this contract award marks an important step toward building the nation's full complement of six polar icebreakers to meet the unique mission demands that have emerged from increased commerce, tourism, research, and international activities in the Arctic and Antarctic," Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said in an announcement of the award.
The Coast Guard has pleaded with Congress since at least 2005 for one or more heavy icebreakers. That year, as its two heavy icebreakers were nearing the end of their 30-year expected service lives, the Coast Guard decided to place the 399-foot Polar Star in "caretaker status," preserving it for future use but rendering it inoperable without a major overhaul.
The Coast Guard received funding to repair the vessel and returned it to service in 2013. Its sister ship, the Polar Sea, suffered a catastrophic engine failure in 2010 and was placed on inactive status, deemed too costly to repair.
The service also operates the medium icebreaker Healy, commissioned in 2000 and used for Arctic patrols and research missions, as well as several small icebreakers and buoy tenders for inland waterways.
The new Polar Security Cutters will be designed to perform the missions of the Polar Star, which include supporting U.S. scientific operations in Antarctica, as well as search and rescue, maritime law enforcement, environmental response and national defense.
"Against the backdrop of great power competition, the Polar Security Cutter is key to our nation's presence in the polar regions," he said.
The strategy places the service at the forefront in keeping the region "conflict-free," with Coast Guard patrols projecting U.S. presence, protecting the maritime environment and safeguarding mariners in the region.
Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Tuesday praised the Polar Security Cutter contract award as a step toward strengthening the Coast Guard's operational capabilities in the region.
"As a longtime advocate for Arctic domain awareness, I am pleased to see the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard award this new Polar Security Cutter contract," said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. "Alaska plays a unique role in our national defense posture and, as interests in the Arctic continue to grow, our Polar Security Cutters will be vital assets for promoting safety and security for those in Alaska, the U.S. and our allies across the globe."
"This is a great step forward and a long time coming," said Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-New York. "For too long, we've been outpaced by Russia and China as they've expanded their icebreaker fleets and encroached on the High North. ... It's up to Washington to ensure the Coast Guard has the resources it needs to protect our national security and sovereignty in the Arctic."