A few days ago, Alexei Rakhmanov, head of the United Shipbuilding Corporation saidthat the United States will need at least 7-8 years to create powerful icebreakers, and they will cost three times more. This statement of his caused, as usual, the reaction of the patriotic public, which basically boiled down to joyful assertions that the Americans would not be able to build this icebreaker fleet at all.
The public will have to disappoint, and the words of Alexei Leonidovich be clarified. Americans can’t just build icebreakers. They have already begun to build them: one has already fully funded and started to build (while ordering accessories for the bookmark). Four years later, the United States will have one new icebreaker in operation, suitable also for military tasks, and there will be a second in completion, and the two existing ones will also be in operation. And this will be just the beginning.
We will analyze the specifics of American icebreaking.
American icebreaker issue
Unlike Russia, which has almost three hundred thousand inhabitants in Murmansk alone and which has a huge number of complex facilities and enterprises in the Arctic, developed commercial shipping and the most important sea communications line - the Northern Sea Route, the United States has nothing of the kind. In their largest settlement beyond the Arctic Circle, less than 5000 people live, and, in fact, there is no economy. No extraction of resources, no merchant shipping. The difference in approaches to the development of the Arctic is detailed in the article. "The Arctic Front. Regarding Russia's Northward Movement".
Therefore, the tasks of American icebreakers have always been extremely limited. Basically, they boiled down to escorting supply vessels to American research stations in Antarctica, on the other side of the Earth, and in the Arctic, to delivering research teams and rescue operations. It’s rare when they had to navigate through the ice a lonely ship in a hurry to bring something to a small village that they didn’t have time to bring there in the open water in the summer.
Also, in the case of military icebreakers, one of the secondary tasks was to carry out military provocations against our country on the Northern Sea Route: it usually had to be a passage through Soviet territorial waters in the Vilkitsky Strait under the cover of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (which the United States, by the way, did not ratified) the so-called right of peaceful passage, which in such circumstances was not applicable.
The Americans in the 60s tried to do this, but nature turned out to be stronger, and their weak military icebreakers could not overcome the ice.
In 1976 and 1978, the US Coast Guard included two “heavy” (according to the American classification) icebreakers: Polar Star (Polar Star) and Polar Sea (Polar Sea). From then until the end of the 90s, all of America’s icebreaking tasks were solved by them. Provocations were excluded from their list, since the Cold War made it possible to fight with the USSR somewhere on the periphery of world politics, they coped with the rest. The ships turned out successful and powerful, only the excessive complexity of their design failed.
In 2000, Khili entered service - a large icebreaker with a displacement of 16000 tons, but with a small thickness of ice to overcome - 1,6 meters, and therefore limited suitability. So, “Healy” does not go to Antarctica, and, due to the small thickness of the ice to be overcome, it is classified as “medium”, although the more “penetrating” “Polar Star” and “Polar Sea” are considered “heavy” with a displacement of 13200 tons. However, the Healy reached the North Pole when it became necessary in 2015, and without any problems.
And in 2011, due to a serious accident of the main power plant (GEM), Polar Sea was forever joked. Polar Star and Polar C were designed for 30 years of operation. In the early 2000s, these deadlines came out. But no one was going to change the ships. America began its gigantic war, the episodes of which were the entry of troops into Afghanistan and the capture of Iraq, and money was needed for more "important" things than icebreakers.
So began the epic of maintaining the Polar Star in working condition. Using the Polar Sea spare parts as a “donor,” the Coast Guard managed to operate a ship that exceeded all the operating periods in the critically important Antarctic direction. The Arctic was "held" by "Healy." There was no and no problem with the latter, the ship is not old, but Polar Star handed over more and more every year, and its repairs turned out to be more and more difficult. By the mid-2010s, Polar Star was a “living corpse” of the ship, the service on which was simply life-threatening.
In 2013, the Department of Homeland Security, which reports to the Coast Guard that understands that the days of the Polar Star is numbered, issued a special statement stating that the US urgently needs six new icebreakers: at least three heavy and three medium ones.
But there was no money. I had to keep it up, all the more so in the event of a critical breakdown, it was possible to hire some kind of icebreakers in Russia.
In 2014, this backup option became impossible, and the United States again remained with Polar Star. The ship at this moment was falling apart in the literal sense of the word.
The turning point was 2018. Firstly, the press got the details of how one of the recent icebreaker expeditions to the Antarctic went. After several breakdowns of the power plant, due to which the ship was on the verge of losing speed, a new emergency was added - a serious hull leak. The leak led to the flooding of the engine room, loss of speed and repair right at sea, during which it was necessary to wage a struggle for survivability, and brew a rotten case from old age. The Americans then managed to solve the problems due to the fact that they carried with them everything that could come in handy for repairs, and due to the extraordinary efforts of personnel who knew well where and what their ship could break. There was a threat that the icebreaker would soon be unable to provide Americans in Antarctica. And as a result, the risk of having to ask Russia, which the United States was then trying to put strong pressure on for help.
The second problem for the Coast Guard was the intention of the Navy to conduct a military provocation against Russia. The military intended to do with Polar Star what did not work out in the 60s: go through Russian territorial waters and show the Russians who is the master in the Arctic. But the “freedom of navigation exercises” had to be canceled: the then Coast Guard commander, Admiral Paul Zukunt, said that the icebreaker could break at any moment, and then Russia would have to turn to save it. It would be a political disaster, and the Americans retreated.
These two episodes did what the U.S. Coast Guard could not do for decades: they convinced Congress that it was time to solve the icebreaking problem. And Congress allocated money, immediately and without bargaining, paying for one icebreaker, repairing the Polar Star, and even allocating a small reserve to the Coast Guard to the Coast Guard.
Then there was a tender, and in 2019 the construction of a series of American icebreakers began.
American icebreaking program
Initially, long before the financing of the icebreakers became a reality, the Coast Guard was inclined toward an advance project of the Fincanteri Mariette Marine Corporation, which had long ago published its groundwork and proposals for a promising icebreaker. This company was supposed to be a construction contractor, but the tender for the construction was won by the VT Halter Marine shipyard. It was with her that a contract was signed for the construction of the lead ship of the series.
According to the contract, the company must complete the design of the ship by the end of 2021, order and receive all the components that are necessary for laying the ship, make steel cutting and lay the ship.
It is necessary to surrender it in 2024. This will be the year when the United States will have a new heavy icebreaker. In addition to the full payment for the construction of the ship, Congress allocated money for the so-called life extension program for the old man “Polar Star”: the ship will be very seriously repaired in several ways and will be able to serve at least until the construction of the second icebreaker in the United States of the new series. This work is already underway. By 2024, the United States will again have three icebreakers: a brand new heavy icebreaker, repaired by tens of millions of dollars, the Polar Star and Healy. Another ship will be under construction. After the second is completed, Polar Star will most likely be decommissioned. But by then, the United States will have two new heavy icebreakers and one medium Healy in service. If everything goes according to plan, then another ship will be under construction by that time.
In January 2019, the new commander Karl Schulz said in an interview that the minimum number of ships the Coast Guard needed were three icebreakers, and six ships would be sufficient. Taking into account the fact that Polar Star still does not pass for a long time, this meant that it was necessary to build five more, of which at that time only one was fully funded.
At the end of 2019, when the preparation of the budget for 2020 was ending, clouds began to gather over the second icebreaker in the series. Trump, who had previously personally launched the icebreaking program, needed to find funds for another project he had promised in the elections - a wall on the border with Mexico. Then there was talk of a serious reduction in a number of programs, among which it was proposed to re-equip the Coast Guard. But in the end it worked out, and Congress allocated a part of the money to the second ship.
Currently, $ 1,169 billion has been allocated and spent on the program. This is only $ 121 million less than needed to build two icebreakers, but without military equipment and weapons supplied under the control of the US government. And if you take into account all the costs, including even training the crew and preparing the location, it turns out that the first icebreaker has been paid in advance, and the second has been allocated 130 million, for which you can start ordering components. The reality of spending somewhere in the middle, we, figuratively speaking, can assume that the Americans have funded one and a half icebreakers, one of which is already under construction.
It is impossible to say exactly when the Americans actually lay the second ship, it will depend on funding, but in the financial plan of the program, the last tranche for it refers to 2024. Since, according to a published report by the US Congressional Research Service, the number of heavy icebreakers previously planned for construction is three, we can safely assume that in 2024 the Americans plan to finish financing the third icebreaker. And this means that they plan to build the entire three much earlier than this decade ends. Thus, by the end of the decade, the USA can safely guarantee that there are four icebreakers capable of going to, for example, the North Pole, of which only one, the Healy, will have restrictions on the thickness of the ice that can be overcome. The rest of the three can only be stopped by truly thick ice, presumably substantially thicker than two meters. American problems with icebreakers will be resolved.
The question of the second three is still open. We are exploring the option of building three medium-sized icebreakers plus three heavy ones in the first series, and, possibly, these will be simplified versions of heavy icebreakers (in order to save).
Technical specifics and differences from the Russian approach
For Russia, icebreakers are a tool for the development of their economy. American icebreakers are a tool to maintain American influence. This dictates significant differences in approaches to the design of ships. American ships are warships, and the cheerful red-and-white coloring of the Coast Guard should not mislead anyone.
Of the cost of an icebreaker, almost a third is various military equipment that will allow the ship to be used in the interests of the U.S. Navy, receive any intelligence information from any combat unit of the U.S. Navy, give the received intelligence to the U.S. Navy, ensure the use of weapons by other combat units and put various types of radio interference. While there is no precise clarity on weapons. The first studies from the Finkanteri included either an unarmed ship or a ship with 4 12,7 mm machine guns. But now, it seems, some system is heavier on the ship. The ship has a helicopter hangar, infrastructure for divers, the ability to equip a command post, possibly the ability to carry underwater vehicles and ensure their use. This is a completely different ship than our icebreakers.
In order to reduce infrastructure costs and universalize the ship, the Americans did not even consider its atomic version, but they do not need it, they are not going to drive any caravans of ships across the ice. At the same time, their ships promise to be quite heavy - 23400 tons. This is almost twice as much as the Polar Star, and only two thousand tons less than the standard displacement of our newest Arctic. For comparison: our icebreaking patrol ships of Project 23550 will have 9000 tons of displacement.
The power of the ship’s power plant, built around giant Caterpillar diesel generators with engines, will be about 45000 hp, which, of course, does not reach nuclear ships, but is already quite close to them. This is enough for the Americans, they do not need either the speed of passage of the ice, or their most complete splitting, they can go around thick hummocks and look for places where the ice is thinner, because they will not be followed by a caravan of tankers and bulk carriers. The ship will be equipped with a variety of crane equipment and seats for the crew and passengers for a total of 186 people. This is a ship of presence in its pure form - and, in parallel with campaigns in the Antarctic, it will be used like that.
If you listen to the words of Admiral Schultz, it will become completely clear that the Americans are going to actively harm us on the Northern Sea Route with their icebreakers. Otherwise, it makes no sense to have six units, which the Coast Guard wants to have in the final. Even three for them would be a lot: two heavy and “Healy” would be enough. But the USA, having no opportunity to compete with us in the peaceful development of the Arctic region, is going to seriously complicate our economic activity with its provocations. And here is where every ship built is needed.
In addition to these icebreakers, the USA has three more small ships (no more than 6000 tons), which are used by scientific organizations for research in the Arctic. Together with them, the United States today has 5 icebreakers. There will be six in 2024.
So in a way, Americans are closer to the fleet icebreakers, rather than A. Rakhmanov said.
It remains for the sake of interest to clarify the issue of price.
The cost of building three new icebreakers for the United States is one billion eight hundred twenty-five million dollars. If you add military equipment and weapons, then two billion three hundred seventy-one million dollars. An average of $ 790 million per ship. In terms of rubles at the Central Bank rate, this is fifty-five billion three hundred million rubles per ship. For comparison: the "Arctic" costs fifty billion. She, of course, has a nuclear power plant. And the Americans have military electronics, which we cannot even imagine. Moreover, even recalculation of prices not according to the Central Bank exchange rate, but according to purchasing power parity, will not give a difference of seven or eight times.
This is how things really are with American icebreakers: there are only a few years left before the United States has new icebreakers. And before they appear on our coast - too. And this does not get up to the Americans in any fantastic way.
However, they can dramatically increase the scale of their program.
On June 9, 2020, US President Donald Trump signed a memorandum that demonstrates the existence of much more serious intentions. First, according to Trump, the United States will nevertheless study the possibility of building an atomic icebreaker. Secondly, there are prospects of increasing the number of ships under construction.
The memorandum requires considering how many ships are really necessary for the Americans to fight for the Arctic, and requires expanding the capabilities of using ships “for national security purposes”.
In addition to the possible expansion of the icebreaking program, the memorandum requires exploring the possibility of equipping at least two bases in the Arctic, as well as deploying ships at bases in other countries.
Trump requires a powerful fleet of icebreakers by 2029. Given the already ongoing program, we can say that the first step the Americans have already taken.
A look ahead
And we need to prepare for the American provocations. Two patrol icebreakers of project 23550, which are now under construction, are very “out of place” and will be commissioned on time. Of course, these ships are significantly smaller than the American ones, and perhaps the Americans will even equip their icebreakers no worse or stronger than us (obviously, there will be no containers with Caliber on our patrol icebreakers, more details - here) But this is not a matter of principle, it is important for us that we can control them near our territorial waters, by attaching a patrol ship to them, and at a greater distance, with a greater thickness of ice, behind them and aviation can follow.
The 97P border icebreakers will also be useful, which must be maintained in good working order.
And we also need a clear vision of how to respond to their provocations. For example, their icebreaker “cuts off” the path through neutral waters, passing several miles in ours. This is a typical scenario of American provocation under the guise of the right of peaceful passage. What to do in such a situation? Shoot? But this is a disproportionate answer, and the situation is, frankly, ambiguous from a legal point of view. In response to this do not shoot. To do nothing? But then such things will become the norm, and the Americans will do it every day.
Take a walk through their territorial waters in return? But the answer must be more or less immediately. All that is clear is that you need to worry about such things in advance.
But apparently, it’s not worthwhile to get involved in the increase in the construction of military icebreakers. Until the scale of the problems that the Americans can create for us with their ships is clear, it’s not worth it.
Given the timing of the entry of American icebreakers, we have time to prepare, and we must use it correctly: it will soon become very “hot” in the Arctic. New American icebreakers are direct evidence of this.