Cover: The U.S. Coast Guard Is Building an Icebreaker Fleet

The U.S. Coast Guard Is Building an Icebreaker Fleet

What Comes Next? Issues and Challenges

Published Dec 8, 2020

by Abbie Tingstad, Scott Savitz, Dulani Woods, Jeffrey A. Drezner

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International interest in polar regions continues to grow, bringing with it increasing concerns about competition, safety, economic opportunity, and the environment. The White House recently issued a memorandum reaffirming a call for a fleet of polar-security icebreakers to serve U.S. interests in the Arctic and Antarctic. In the Arctic, the United States maintains sovereignty in maritime areas under U.S. jurisdiction, manages resources in these waters, maintains waterway access to icebound ports and communities, and ensures the safety and security of vessels operating near ice. In the Antarctic, the United States maintains a research and diplomatic presence within the broader global community.

For several years, icebreaking has been identified among important capability gaps for U.S. polar operations. Only two U.S. Coast Guard cutters are capable of operating in heavy polar ice, and both have limited time left in their operational life spans. Continued interest in polar icebreaking presents an opportunity to enhance U.S. presence in the Arctic and Antarctic. The United States is moving forward with a plan to build three additional icebreakers and hopes to fund three more. The authors of this Perspective recommend that the Coast Guard (1) assess further needs for implementing additional icebreaking capacity; (2) ensure that new vessels are built with a changing, multimission operating environment in mind; and (3) consider other, related capability investments as part of planning, including additional people and materiel. In the Perspective, the authors expand on each of these recommendations and include short scenarios to illustrate some potential needs for icebreakers.

This research was conducted within the Acquisition and Development Program of the RAND Homeland Security Research Division (HSRD).

This commentary is part of the RAND expert insight series. RAND Expert Insights present perspectives on timely policy issues. All RAND Expert Insights undergo peer review to ensure high standards for quality and objectivity.

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