Breaking Ice: The Next Icebreaker Will Be a Navy-Coast Guard Partnership

US Coast Guard photo by PO Patrick Kelley

US Coast Guard photo by PO Patrick Kelley

By Dustin Q. Diaz


As global climate change occurs, the Arctic is changing with it, causing unprecedented retreat of sea ice in one of the world’s last great frontiers, opening new sea lanes and, with them, new opportunities for exploration, research, and trade.

The Naval Research and Development Establishment will play a necessary role in this expansion, and employees at Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division (NSWCCD) are taking part in that effort, according to Dr. Tim Arcano, Carderock technical director.

“To maintain presence and to defend our national interests in these important emerging areas, and to enforce treaties and other international laws, the US Navy will need to design and build polar capabilities into its ships,” Arcano said. “Capabilities such as advanced ship-design modeling tools, hydrodynamics, ship systems and ice modeling must be given priority now to ensure that the US maintains relevance and presence in this critical arena.”

The Navy currently does not have any polar-capable surface ships, nor does it have the ability to independently design and test them. What it does have is a roadmap of activities to pursue, as well as capable partners to work with and learn from to achieve those goals. The Navy Arctic Roadmap was created by Task Force Climate Change and most recently revised in 2014 to prepare the Navy to respond effectively to future contingencies, delineate the Navy’s Arctic region leadership role within the Defense Department, and articulate the Navy’s support to the National Strategy for the Arctic region.

“In the near-term, the focus is on training and understanding what the inherent capabilities of our existing platforms and systems are when operating in that region,” said Stephen Minnich, naval architect at Carderock’s West Bethesda, Maryland, headquarters. “Given what we learn about our existing platforms, we will investigate how we can enhance the capabilities of those platforms in the midterm. Far term, we are looking at the needed capabilities and platforms to support sustained presence in high latitudes. The Arctic Roadmap is guiding the research work that we’re doing here at Carderock.”

The Navy has the ability today to surface through ice with its submarines, with limitations. Safe-operating guidance for doing this was developed at Carderock in the 1980s and 1990s by members of the structures and composites division. While the Navy accumulates more knowledge and develops technology to operate in marginal ice zones with its own ships, the need to explore arctic regions and resupply American interests at both poles is currently met by the Coast Guard’s polar icebreakers: the heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Star (WAGB 10) and medium icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB 20). These massive ships have fulfilled regular commitments for decades under very arduous conditions, and the effort now under way to create a new class of icebreakers will be a historic one, according to Neil Meister, technical director of the polar icebreaker replacement project within the Coast Guard.

“You don’t build a heavy icebreaker except once in a generation,” Meister said. “These are considered national strategic assets. What we’re making is essentially a steel fist that has to last for decades and be able to float, run into things, and operate at 40 below zero. These ships do a lot of crazy things that most ships don’t do. The capabilities we are building into the replacement reflect that.”

The Coast Guard recently began the acquisition process for a new polar icebreaker and formed an integrated program office with the Navy’s Program Executive Office Ships and Naval Sea Systems Command’s Naval Systems Engineering Office to maintain this capability by building the next generation of these unique vessels. With Polar Star reaching 40 years of age in 2016, the program intends to begin production activities for the next heavy icebreakers in the very near future. Carderock, in multiple ways, will play a key role in this acquisition.

“The Navy and Carderock are now in a position to support the Coast Guard in terms of the research and development efforts that are associated with acquiring a platform with icebreaking capability,” Minnich said. “This collaboration with the Coast Guard is strategically important. It helps us to identify and quantify the challenges that we face, which will help to inform requirements. This shared knowledge and expertise will help us continue to execute the Arctic Roadmap.”

The Coast Guard has its own Arctic Strategy, released in 2013, that has a lot of overlap with its Navy counterpart, according to Meister. Both services have an interest in preserving freedom of the seas, projecting Arctic sovereignty, and supporting scientific research. With the Navy’s Arctic reach limited to submarines for now, these icebreakers give the United States the reach it needs at the poles with the incredibly limited shore infrastructure and hazardous conditions faced when operating in these environments. Minnich said that navigation, for example, is difficult enough in open-water conditions, but even more so at extreme latitudes where the functionality of some systems aboard surface ships may be degraded.

“Some of the environmental challenges faced by vessels operating in high latitudes include topside icing, extreme cold, heavy seas and limited visibility. You get spray that ices the deckhouse so you get a lot of weight up high, which has a negative impact on ship’s stability,” Minnich said. “Navigation in close proximity to the poles is challenging. Our understanding of the bathymetry in that area is poor, relatively speaking. Operational awareness, understanding where the ice is and how it’s changing so that we can plan our operations, is a challenge.”

Currently, Healy is tasked with regular science research missions to the Arctic while Polar Star conducts the annual Operation Deep Freeze deployment to resupply McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Meister said both are chartered by the National Science Foundation: Healy, to conduct arctic research, with a full research vessel-level science capability aboard; and Polar Star, to provide logistical support capability for Antarctic research. These icebreakers are uniquely qualified for the missions they perform with much of the global icebreaking fleet dedicated to commercial purposes.

“You want reach, because there is nothing up there. It’s very difficult for people who have never been to the Arctic or Antarctic to understand what ‘nothing’ is, because they’ve never been exposed to it,” Meister said. “Up there, it is effectively a moonshot. There is very little infrastructure. Communications are very difficult up there. You are on your own and you need to be able to take care of yourself. Coast Guard ships are traditionally designed for independent operations.”

Nathan Hagan, a naval architect and Carderock’s technical point of contact for ice-structure loading assessment for naval vessels operating in the Arctic, said Carderock’s involvement in the upcoming icebreaker class motivated the unification of the division’s efforts in hydrodynamics and ship structures into a team that will look at all the disciplines involved in building this ship.

“Previously, both from a hydrodynamics and a structural perspective, subject-matter experts at Carderock continued research to develop polar ship design knowledge within the Navy, but it didn’t quite have a clear goal, other than technical diligence,” Hagan said. “And now we have an objective that really helps us identify priorities more appropriately when allocating resources.”

One area that Carderock Division can’t directly support at its own facilities is ice model testing. Hagan said one of Carderock’s partners in this area has been the Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in Hanover, New Hampshire, which maintains the nation’s primary ice-tank facilities, and is currently collaborating with Carderock’s structural team by looking at discrete element modeling to simulate a notional Navy ship moving through an ice field to understand how ice breaks and moves in chunks as the hull moves through it.

“Material science associated with Arctic conditions is traditionally in the swim lane of our domestic partner CRREL. Their facility has ice tanks and ice labs already, so we have a very strong working relationship with them to use their facilities when we need to do certain model tests and share simulation and modeling expertise,” Hagan said. “We’ve provided all the structural assessment capability for the submarine platforms—which look to bend ice to break it for surfacing, unlike the icebreakers, which crush ice to go through it—as well for arctic operations.”

Dr. Paul E. Hess III, of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), is sponsoring this structural work between Carderock and CRREL. This is not the first work Hess has done with ice model testing, or even the first time working with Carderock and CRREL, as he worked with Carderock’s Ed Devine, who is now retired, on ice impact testing using a polar icebreaker model and a conceptual Navy frigate model on a study in the early 1990s.

“Based on my past association with ice-loading experimentation, and the uptick in interest in potential Navy operations in the Arctic regions, in 2009 I started working with Ed Devine to find a way to resurrect past Navy knowledge and figure out how to move forward in development of new tools and knowledge with regard to ice loading on hulls,” Hess said. “That work led to increased and renewed engagement with CRREL and coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard Surface Forces Logistics Center and Defence Research and Development Canada [DRDC], both sharing interests with the Navy in knowing how capable non-ice-strengthened ships are in ice covered waters.

“The Coast Guard and DRDC funded American Bureau of Shipping [ABS] and Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada [MUN], to provide a spreadsheet tool for predicting ice capability of non-ice-strengthened ship hulls to assist in operator guidance in areas with floating sea ice. To leverage the Coast Guard and DRDC investments and interest, I began funding NSWCCD, ABS, MUN and CRREL to collaborate on the evaluation of existing toolsets and data to determine effectiveness for naval non-ice-strengthened hulls. ABS and MUN are taking their in-house tools, developed for ice-class ships under the [International Maritime Organization] Polar Code, and exploring their use on a notional Navy combatant ship design provided by NSWCCD.”

Hagan said the heterogeneous nature of ice presents unique challenges not only for ships to operate in, but also during scaled model testing. Ice, he said, adds many more variables than open water.

“There are many dependencies that determine what the strength of ice will be. It forms naturally in many different ways resulting in many different ice types. These factors play into our ability to predict the structural load that a ship will experience if it impacts ice. It makes operating more unpredictable,” Hagan said.

Hess said reporting on this initial work should be complete in 2017 and will increase knowledge of the capability of current tools to support operations of existing Navy ships in areas such as the marginal ice zone in high-latitude regions.

“With increased understanding of current hull ice- resistance capacity, we can both operate our existing ships more safely and understand the value added by increased plate thickness, or other strengthening approaches, in future design,” Hess said.

This need for increased naval operability is becoming more critical as Arctic ice melts and new sea lanes open, according to Arcano. He said cargo shipping volume through the Northern Sea Route has increased with the retreat of ice.

“As the Arctic opens up, commercial vessels will begin to use these northern routes for shipping, trade, exploration, and more between Europe and Asia, reducing travel times between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans,” Arcano said. “The US’s interest includes not only shipping, but also scientific research and exploration, critical natural resources, and strategic location, which could be especially beneficial to our nation.”

Carderock’s next step to help the new icebreakers come to fruition will be to join the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security as they use a standing Cooperative Activity Arrangement with the Canadian government to share knowledge and begin ice-model testing of a Coast Guard-developed indicative design, with open-water testing expected to begin at Carderock in summer 2017, according to Meister. Hess said that he hopes the work he and others have done so far can contribute to “Naval Ship Maneuverability in Ice,” a NATO Science and Technology Organization collaboration with Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and New Zealand, which starts in fall 2017 and for which he is the lead. Carderock also provides delegates to the specialist team on polar ship design and safety under the NATO Ship Design and Capability Group.

About the author:

Dustin Diaz is a writer with Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division’s public affairs.

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