At the present time, the US has only two icebreakers, the medium powered “Healy,” built in 2000, and the heavy-duty Polar Star that was commissioned in 1976, sailed until 2006, and returned to service in 2013after being refitted. The new US icebreaker is scheduled to launch in 2023.
The Russians have forty icebreakers, including massively powered nuclear icebreakers. The US had no heavy-duty icebreaker between 2006 and 2013 and had to totally rely on other countries, particularly Russia, to provide icebreaker support for our stations in Antarctica.
Given our deteriorating relationship with Russia, it would be foolish to think we can rely upon them for support in the future. Without icebreakers to cut channels in the Antarctic ice for heavy cargo ships, our ability to function in Antarctica would be seriously compromised, as would our ability to continue to do important polar research.
Icebreakers take a heavy beating and are constantly in dry dock for repairs. The icebreaker that I was on, the Glacier, was never quite the same after the beating it took during our 1969/1970 deployment. In spite of many retrofits, it had to be taken out of service in 1987.
The need for our own icebreakers is particularly important now that the Northwest Passage is open to passenger ships and is strategically important because of the oil reserves there. Even though that passage is much more open, invariably ships will get into trouble and need the Coast Guard to come to the rescue. In 2013, when two smaller icebreakers ended up trapped in the icepack off Antarctica, are one heavy-duty icebreaker, the Polar Star, was the only one in the region powerful enough to save them.
More US icebreakers are required. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Charles W. Ray said, “our threshold requirement for your-round access and to protect national security, economic, environmental and maritime interests is three heavy and three medium icebreakers.” I am pleased to see that the US is finally starting to take our need for our own icebreakers seriously.