American plans for the construction of Arctic icebreakers awaits a massive update. If you believe the memorandum of US President Trump, America for the first time in its history intends to build atomic icebreakers. Or maybe not even build, but buy. However, the only country in the world with experience in building ships of this class in Russia.
US President Donald Trump published a memorandum in which he instructed the US Coast Guard to explore the possibility of “buying” nuclear icebreakers. The US Coast Guard today owns the two most powerful American icebreakers – the heavy Polar Star and the medium Healy. Five more ships in the American icebreaking fleet belong to the class of light icebreakers and are not adapted for year-round navigation in polar conditions. In other words, the United States today has only seven icebreakers. In addition, all icebreakers at the disposal of the United States use diesel fuel, America has never had experience in building icebreaking ships with a nuclear power plant.
The Arctic is not for the weak
For comparison: the tiny Finland, which also, unlike the United States, does not have access to the Arctic Ocean, today there are eleven. The northern neighbor of the United States – Canada – has 10 icebreakers, three are under construction, and another four are planned for laying in the coming years. And even China, which is all the more remote from the Arctic or Antarctic, has a fleet of four modern icebreaking ships and plans to increase it by building two more heavy icebreakers.
But the Russian icebreaking fleet has nothing to compare with the current American one. Today, Russia has 53 different icebreakers of all available classes in service. Six more vessels are being completed at shipyards of varying degrees of readiness, and another 12 icebreakers, including unique, extra-heavy ships, are planned for construction.
So what did the USA count on until now in a new race to both poles of our planet, which is unfolding before our eyes?
Prior to Trump’s latest statement, the US Coast Guard may have had an imperfect, but still a work plan for the gradual renewal of the American icebreaker fleet. The thing is that of the seven American icebreakers formally in service, the three Coast Guard ships are not only the largest and most powerful but also the oldest. Formally new is only the icebreaker Mackinaw, which the Coast Guard received at its disposal in 2006, but its seaworthy class is only suitable for navigation on the Great Lakes of the USA and adjacent rivers, it is not suitable for long sea passages.
But the other two icebreakers, already mentioned by Healy and Polar Star, are much older: the first was launched in 1999, and the second in 1976. Moreover, the problems with maintaining the Polar Star icebreaker on the go in the last decade have become so significant that the US Coast Guard even had to joke its “sister ship”, the Polar Sea icebreaker, using it as a source of unique spare parts for Polar Star.
This is not to say that the sad state of affairs with the Coast Guard icebreakers was not understood in the White House. Washington is sluggish but is consistently preparing to compete for resources on the Arctic shelf with all other countries. However, the program for replacing old icebreakers, adopted back in 2012, immediately after the start of the “cannibalization” of the Polar Sea, obviously stalled. Over the past eight years, the program, called the Polar Security Cutter, has been worked out on paper in many significant details. To replace the obsolete Healy and Polar Star, they proposed building three heavy and three medium-sized icebreakers of a new design at once, the first construction site was even agreed to be funded by the US Navy, which clearly suffered from the fact that their vessels could not really go into high latitudes. By 2019, they even decided on a contractor – they should have become a long-time partner of the Navy in many projects, the VT Halter Marine Inc shipyard, located in the state of Mississippi, in the city of Pascagoula. Under the project, VT Halter Marine even managed to get a contract for $ 745 million last year, which they promised to offset against the construction of three icebreakers, totaling more than $ 1.9 billion.
The Polarstern II diesel-electric icebreaker project, which is being developed by Germany today, was taken as the basis for the icebreaker for the Polar Security Cutter project. Polarstern II is the development of the well-established German research icebreaker Polarstern, which was well established in the past, and was built in 1981. The old Polarshtern became famous for the fact that in September 1991, together with the Swedish Arctic icebreaker Odin, it reached the North Pole. The new design of the German shipbuilders should at least twice exceed its predecessor in displacement and at least one and a half times in power. These changes will allow such icebreakers to remain in autonomous ice navigation for up to 90 days and break ice up to 1.8 meters thick. Why atomic?
Trump’s statement sets the plans for the development of the American icebreaker fleet literally “upside down.” In fact, the published memorandum proposes to completely revise the concept of evolutionary replacement of a diesel-electric icebreaker fleet with the same vessels – and switch to a nuclear reactor as the main source of icebreaking power for future vessels.
The objective reason for this kind of decision is clear. Despite the impressive size of the new Polar Security Cutter diesel icebreaker, which is about half the displacement of the “old man” Polar Star, its ice penetration is still poor and insufficient for the harsh conditions of the central Arctic.
In addition, in the new icebreakers, it was decided to abandon gas turbines that could provide Polar Star with a short-term up to 56 MW of power in order to break out of cramped ice conditions, where its usual, economical 13-megawatt diesel-electric plant was passive. Due to this, the Polar Star could not go long even in two-meter ice, in the usual mode breaking ice only 1.7 meters thick. Instead of such a concept, the new icebreakers of the Polar Security Cutter program plan to equip only a diesel-electric installation with a total capacity of 33.7 MW, which is only slightly more than the peak power of the average Healy icebreaker already at the disposal of the US Coast Guard.
In general, if you hit a new “heavy” icebreaker in severe pack ice more than two meters thick – he will have to wait for help, and not the ships that he decided to lead.
For comparison: the capacity of even the old, still Soviet, nuclear-powered icebreakers of the Arctic type was 55 MW, and the new Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers of the LK-60Y type, now being completed in St. Petersburg, have a capacity of 60 MW on the shaft. This allows them to increase their ice penetration by as much as 15% – from 2.25 meters, which was in the “Arctic”, to at least 2.6 meters in the LK-60Ya.
So, it turns out that Trump is “in the long run” game, insisting on the creation of atomic American icebreakers, he is right. You won’t get far on a diesel-electric drive in the Arctic and Antarctic. Of course, it would be better for the US Coast Guard to simply get “Polar Star, only a little better and newer,” but, apparently, the White House has its own plans for the Arctic and Antarctic seas.
In addition, we must understand that the United States does not even want to “get to Russia”, but at least break away from China.
At the end of December 2019, it became known that the PRC was going to build a new heavy icebreaker Xue Long 3 (“Snow Dragon – 3”), in addition to the already existing heavy icebreakers Xue Long and Xue Long 2, built-in 1994 and 2019. The new replenishment of the fleet of “Snow Dragons” should leave far behind the possibilities of future American icebreakers. They also want to install peak gas turbines on the third Chinese icebreaker, which will allow it to break through two-meter ice with a capacity of up to 50 MW. This additional 20 cm of ice penetration will give the Chinese icebreakers the necessary independence in the Arctic and Antarctic, which the Polar Security Cutter program cannot provide.
Who will give him?
Another question following Trump’s “icebreaking” memorandum is where the US plans to take atomic icebreakers in a fairly short time. The thing is that the aging Polar Star will need an urgent replacement somewhere in the five year period – or a very expensive maintenance program, comparable in cost to the construction of a new ship.
Of course, the United States has all the components for a new nuclear icebreaker – both the practice of building icebreaking ships and nuclear marine reactors. Only now there is neither a project of an atomic icebreaker nor experience in creating a real icebreaker-atomic icebreaker.
And it will be necessary to compete with China tomorrow – it was announced that the “Snow Dragon – 3” will be laid down at the Chinese shipyard in the next two years, even before the commissioning of the Polar Security Cutter program, which is inferior to it in all respects, in all respects, to the new American diesel icebreaker.
And here one word “plays” that was used by President Trump in the text of his memorandum: it is proposed to “buy” a new American atomic icebreaker. Of course, this passage can also be attributed to the long process of developing its own nuclear-powered ship, implying its order at American shipyards – but this is the way the existing Polar Security Cutter program goes, which Trump de facto criticized in his memorandum.
If we are talking about the fact that the United States really needed an atomic icebreaker “here and now”, then the answer, in general, is obvious. Only Russia can sell such a ship to the United States … if it wants.