The National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum
Recent History
The U.S Coast Guard presently operates just two icebreakers: the heavy icebreaker Polar Star, which is tasked with Antarctic breakout and resupply operations, and the medium icebreaker Healy, which carries out Arctic scientific research for the National Science Foundation.

In 2006, a law designated the Polar-class primarily as research vessels.  Because of that, the National Science Foundation paid for and ran the United States’ icebreaking vessels, using the Coast Guard crews.  In 2009, the NSF announced that they would end funding for maintain Polar Star.   

In March 2010, U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen announce that Polar Star would receive a $62 million overhaul.  Seattle’s Vigor Industrial shipyard completed the overhaul in four years and Polar Star was assigned back to operations in early 2014.  In the last few years, members of her crew sometimes refer to the ship as a “rust bucket,” signaling the need for further overhaul or replacement.

On February 22, 2017, the U.S. Coast Guard announced it had awarded five fixed-price contracts worth $20 million for the future heavy polar icebreaker design studies and analysis.  In 2018, Commandant Admiral Zukunft said the icebreakers would be designed with space, weight, and power reservations sufficient to weaponize icebreakers at some point in the future.  It was also announced that the icebreakers would be called Polar Security Cutters.  

On April 23, 2019, the Coast Guard and the Navy awarded VT Halter Marine a $745 million detailed design and construction contract for the lead Polar Security Cutter.  The icebreaker will be constructed at the company’s Pascagoula, Mississippi shipyard.  The contract with Halter Marine also included options to build two more Polar Security Cutters.  If both options are exercised, the contract value increases to $1.9 billion for the three icebreakers.  

The Polar Security Cutter (PSC) program will replace the current icebreakers with three heavy and three medium icebreakers.  The first of the three heavy icebreakers is expected to deliver in 2023.  Seattle, Washington will remain the home of the icebreaker fleet.

Each winter the Coast Guard currently sends icebreakers as south as possible to lead supply ships into McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, to resupply the National Science Foundation’s research center.  Each summer, the Coast Guard send icebreakers to perform similar missions to assist shipping off the Alaskan coast.  The organization also maintains a U.S. presence in the Arctic, defending national interests in the region, which is increasingly becoming a focus for Russia and China.  

Photograph: Polar Star moored outboard Polar Sea, Ice Pier, Winter Quarters Bay, Antarctica, date unknown.  (Source: United States Coast Guard)