Expert Report

Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs (2006)

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Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

The United States has enduring national and strategic interests in the polar regions, including citizens living above the Arctic circle and three year-round scientific stations in the Antarctic. Polar icebreaking ships are needed to access both regions. Over the past several decades, the U.S. government has supported a fleet of four icebreakers -- three multi-mission U.S. Coast Guard ships (the POLAR SEA, POLAR STAR, and HEALY) and the National Science Foundation's PALMER, which is dedicated solely to scientific research. Today, the POLAR STAR and the POLAR SEA are at the end of their service lives, and a lack of funds and no plans for an extension of the program has put U.S. icebreaking capability at risk. This report concludes that the United States should continue to support its interests in the Arctic and Antarctic for multiple missions, including maintaining leadership in polar science. The report recommends that the United States immediately program, budget, design, and construct two new polar icebreakers to be operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. The POLAR SEA should remain mission capable and the POLAR STAR should remain available for reactivation until the new polar icebreakers enter service. The U.S. Coast Guard should be provided sufficient operations and maintenance budget to support an increased, regular, and influential presence in the Arctic, with support from other agencies. The report also calls for a Presidential Decision Directive to clearly align agency responsibilities and budgetary authorities.

Key Messages

  • Deferred long-term maintenance and failure to execute a plan for replacement or refurbishment of the nation's icebreaking ships have placed national interests in the polar regions at risk.
  • The committee finds that both operations and maintenance of the polar icebreaker fleet have been underfunded for many years, and the capabilities of the nation's icebreaking fleet have diminished substantially.
  • The nation needs the capability to operate in both polar regions reliably and at will.