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Murkowski asks DHS Secretary How to Expedite Construction of Icebreakers

Senator Murkowski (L) asked Secretary of DHS Jeh Johnson(R) what he might do to "step it up" in the Arctic on Wednesday.

Senator Murkowski (L) asked Secretary of DHS Jeh Johnson(R) what he might do to “step it up” in the Arctic on Wednesday.

In a Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the DHS budget request 2016, Senator Murkowski briefly questioned the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on the agency’s Arctic commitment before leaving for another hearing.

Murkowski pointed out at the start of her statement and question that the U.S. has only one full-strength icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is committed to the Antarctic for the next five years. She also pointed out that beyond that deployment, the Polar Star only has a “useful life of six to eight years” from the present.

The 399-foot Polar Star is the United States only operational heavy icebreaker. Image-USCG

The 399-foot Polar Star is the United States only operational heavy icebreaker. Image-USCG

Noting that at two icebreakers, China has more icebreakers than the U.S. government, and that Russia has many more times icebreakers than the U.S., the senator asked what Johnson believed he might do to “step it up” and assume the responsibilities that the U.S. has in the Arctic, and more specifically to how the U.S. might be able to expedite construction of a polar ice breaker.

Secretary Johnson responded by not addressing the senator’s question, but agreeing with her that the U.S. does indeed need new icebreakers built and that the department needed to carefully look at what can be done with the Polar Sea. 

The 399-foot Polar Sea was taken off line after the discovery that five of its six engines had suffered complete failure. Image-USCG

The 399-foot Polar Sea was taken off line after the discovery that five of its six engines had suffered complete failure. Image-USCG

The replacement of the Polar Sea, which was built in 1977, is expected to cost over $1 billion. A full refit was estimated in 2008 to cost $400,000000, which today would equate to roughly a half a billion dollars.

In 2008, Todd Shipyards was awarded a contract of $6.3 million to do a limited refit on the vessel, in 2009, the shipyard was awarded another $5.5 million for maintenance, but by 2011, the Polar Sea was due to be decommissioned. The decommissioning was due to the added expense of the discovery of complete failure of five of its six main diesel engines as a result of improper installation of and installation of incorrect piston rings that caused pistons to weld to the cylinders.

DHS has only designated $4 million to address the icebreaker issue, that $4 million is for “initial acquisition activities. $41 billion was requested for the acquisition of a fleet of six icebreakers in a Murkwski-backed 2016 budget amendment.