As the Coast Guard refreshes its polar icebreaking capability, the new vessels leaders envision will boast a range of technology upgrades including enhanced communications capabilities as well as secure, real-time voice and data exchange.

The service operates two polar icebreakers: the heavy vessel Polar Star and the medium icebreaker Healy. Another heavy ship, the Polar Sea, has been out of action since 2010 due to engine troubles.

This spring, the Coast Guard issued a request for proposals that seeks design and construction details for up to three heavy icebreakers, with a single contract award expected in fiscal year 2019.

Several factors have combined to spark a sense of urgency around the icebreaker fleet. It’s been over 40 years since the United States has recapitalized its heavy polar icebreaker fleet, according to the Government Accountability Office. In that time, a lot has changed.

Russia, with the largest arctic landmass on the planet, now has a fleet of 40 icebreakers, according to Department of Homeland Security documents

At the same time, while climate change may be thinning the polar ice, it may also be accelerating Coast Guard’s polar missions.

Diminishment of polar ice “could lead in coming years to increased commercial ship, cruise ship, and naval surface ship operations, as well as increased exploration for oil and other resources, in the Arctic — activities that could require increased levels of support from polar icebreakers,” notes Ronald O’Rourke, a specialist in naval affairs with the Congressional Research Service.

In the request, the Coast Guard calls out the need for several technological enhancements to meet that mission going forward.

Severely degraded comms

Icebreakers need enhanced communications to deal with the challenges inherent in polar operations.

“Communication is severely degraded at higher latitudes, beyond 65 degrees north and south,” said Eric Nagel, a spokesman for the Coast Guard’s acquisition directorate. “Coast Guard polar icebreakers need to be able to communicate in Polar Regions with a wide range of groups from commercial shipping and recreational boaters to scientific researchers. The polar icebreakers also need to maintain network connectivity with the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense and other federal and international partners.”

In addition to high-latitude solutions, the service also is asking industry to provide an enhanced capability to exchange mission essential information. The solicitation calls for an icebreaker that can maintain “near real-time voice and data communications in the clear, protected, and secure modes of operation in polar regions,” Nagel said.

Along with its scientific and commercial missions, the Coast Guard also is a military force, and the next-generation ice breaker will need to be able to work seamlessly with military counterparts.

“Interoperability with the DOD and joint forces is essential to mission completion. Polar icebreakers must be able to project U.S. sovereignty and influence in ice covered surface waters in the high-latitude maritime areas and maintain international peace and stability in the polar regions,” Nagel said.

In general, the Coast Guard is looking for large-bandwidth communication solutions, especially those that can endure extreme environmental conditions. The technology will have to be vibration resistant, or else have incorporated measures that isolate it from jolts as the ship slams through ice.

This comes on top of an already extensive mission, which according to DHS may include: “Rescuing cruise ships that get locked in the ice, clearing the way for natural resource exploration, keeping commerce lanes passable or opening new ones, as well as many other missions. They also must complete the annual 10,000-mile open sea voyage from Seattle to Australia and then down to Antarctica. Once there, the icebreaker must smash through the frozen bay to lead a cargo ship to McMurdo Station with a year’s worth of life-sustaining supplies.”

Despite the highly specific nature of polar work, the Coast Guard has said it can acquire all these capabilities in commercial off the shelf and open architecture equipment and systems, except for technologies to provide communication using military satellites. The resulting polar icebreaker design “will assure year-round access to key regions and will enhance capabilities to independently execute Coast Guard missions across a wide range of operational conditions,” Nagel said.