Coast Guard medium icebreaker Healy

The Coast Guard has lost its only deployed icebreaker after one of the ship’s main motors caught fire on August 18, an incident only reported by the service on Tuesday.

The USCGC Healy had just picked up a group of 11 scientists in Seward, Alaska to run experiments on ice flow patterns in the Arctic when the blaze struck. The ship is now sailing back home under its own power. It should arrive by Aug. 31, the Coast Guard confirms to Breaking Defense. As a result of the incident, the Coast Guard has canceled all Arctic operations at sea.

The Healy blaze means the US has no operational icebreakers capable of deploying, as the heavy icebreaker Polar Star just wrapped up a scheduled overhaul to prepare for a planned annual deployment to Antarctica in November. The Polar Star is currently in port in Seattle preparing for Operation Deep Freeze, which leads the breakout of McMurdo Sound to allow resupply of the McMurdo Station at Antarctica, the Coast Guard’s Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Brickey told me in an email. 

The medium cutter Healy, built in the 1980s, and the heavy breaker Polar Star, constructed in the 1970s, are both increasingly at risk for mechanical accidents as they age, and “taking one out of service (even temporarily) forces the U.S. to choose which polar region it will serve,” said Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at CSIS.

“Heaven help us if both icebreakers have mechanical failures at the same time,” Conley said. “The U.S. urgently needs interim icebreaking capabilities (both heavy and medium-strength) until the newly constructed polar security cutters become available.”

In the days leading up to the fire, Healy had wrapped up a 26-day patrol supporting Operation Arctic Shield in the Bering Sea.

The Healy and the newly embarked scientists were headed to the Arctic to conduct two missions for the Office of Naval Research. The first was to recover a previously deployed ice tracking system that drifts with the sea ice cover within the water column. The second was the Coordinated Arctic Acoustic Experiment, a high-latitude ice breaking mission to recover three acoustic moorings that Healy deployed in 2019.

“I commend the crew of the Healy for their quick actions to safely combat the fire,” said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, the Pacific Area commander. “This casualty, however, means that the United States is limited in icebreaking capability until the Healy can be repaired, and it highlights the nation’s critical need for Polar Security Cutters.”

The Coast Guard has recently said it needs six icebreakers — three heavy and three medium — to operate at both poles and maintain US presence. “Unfortunately, this procurement plan should have been embarked upon well over a decade ago to avoid the situation the U.S. currently finds itself in,” Conley added. 

Earlier this month, the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security delivered a report to the White House outlining a potential new generation of nuclear-powered icebreakers, two months after the Trump administration issued a surprise public directive to do so.

The plans won’t affect the acquisition of three new conventionally-powered breakers — known as Polar Security Cutters — over the next six years. Instead, it will be a blueprint for three new ships of yet-to-be-determined design that the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security could procure beyond 2026.

The White House’s call for a major rethink of plans to build new heavy icebreakers comes as Russia and China are racing ahead with their own icebreaker building efforts that include nuclear ships, and more defensive weaponry. (D.S.).

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