Huntington Ingalls, General Dynamics express interest in building Coast Guard icebreakers

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star grooms a channel in the fast ice near the National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station, Antarctica, Feb. 1, 2015.


By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: September 10, 2015

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Huntington Ingalls Industries is known for making Navy warships, but company officials have warmed to another business opportunity: Coast Guard icebreakers.

Last week, President Obama visited the Arctic region of Alaska and called for the U.S. to buy an icebreaker in 2020 instead of 2022. He also called on Congress to fund more of the vessels.

As climate change continues to melt sea ice, business and tourism opportunities will grow in the region, the White House said. Untapped stores of oil and natural gas also can be found under all that ice.

Russia's edge in icebreakers compounds the issue. While the U.S. enjoys a hefty advantage in nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, the situation is reversed when it comes to icebreakers. Russia has a fleet of 40 icebreakers with plans to build 11 more, according to the White House.

America's fleet stands at two.

The newest U.S. icebreaker is the medium icebreaker Healy, delivered in November 1999 from the company's Avondale facility. That yard no longer builds ships and now is being marketed for sale, according to Beci Brenton, an HII spokeswoman.

However, HII's Ingalls Shipbuilding division in Pascagoula, Miss., churns out U.S. Coast Guard National Security Cutters on a regular basis. Shipbuilders there would be eager to talk about Coast Guard icebreakers, said spokesman Bill Glenn.

In January, HII responded to a request for information from the Coast Guard about icebreaker design and construction, Glenn said.

"HII has the capability and capacity to build both heavy and medium ice breakers and welcomes the opportunity to expand discussion on that subject with the USCG or other government agencies supporting an Ice Breaker requirement," Glenn said in an email.

Ingalls isn't the only interested party. Defense giant General Dynamics also welcomed Obama's announcement.

In an email, spokesman Dennis DuBard at General Dynamics NASSCO said the company is "very interested" in icebreaker production.

"We have extensive experience in manufacturing heavy- and medium-weight steel commercial ships, and the manufacturing skills and methods needed to build modern polar ice breakers," he said.

At a recent conference, retired Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp Jr. said the U.S. once had eight heavy ice-breaking ships. It now has one, the Polar Star. Papp now works for the State Department as U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic.

"Do we need eight icebreakers? I think not. But I know we need more than one, which is what we've got right now," Papp told the panel, as reported by the Alaska Dispatch News. "The problem is, what's the national imperative now? And that's what I've been struggling with."

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