Mississippi’s VT Halter Marine was awarded a contract in April to build a 460-foot polar security cutter, with options for two more, to upgrade the Coast Guard’s aging icebreaker fleet.
Last year, a VT Halter team won a detail design and construction competition against Bollinger Shipyards in Louisiana and a group comprised of Philly Shipyard of Philadelphia and Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Wisconsin. This spring, Naval Sea Systems Command and the Coast Guard awarded VT Halter $745 million to produce an icebreaker.
Construction is slated to start in the first quarter of 2021 at the company’s facility on Bayou Casotte Parkway in Pascagoula, Miss., said Robert Socha, VT Halter’s senior vice president. More than 900 staff will be hired for the project, and the Pascagoula yard will be modernized starting later this year. VT Halter is owned by ST Engineering.
The icebreaker is due for delivery in 2024, but the contract gives VT Halter incentives to finish it sooner. If Congress approves funds for another two polar security cutters and the Coast Guard exercises its contract options, the company’s award is worth up to $1.94 billion. That covers builder’s costs only and not government-furnished equipment.
The newbuild, which has not been named, will be the first of a planned series of six icebreakers — three heavy and three medium. The first icebreaker will replace the 43-year-old Polar Star, which supplies the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
Technology Associates Inc. in New Orleans is designing VT Halter’s ship. The design is based on the German research vessel Polarstern II, being built for the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven.
The International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code, effective January 2017, includes design, construction and equipment mandates for ships in frigid waters. Global demand for icegoing vessels has grown as warmer temperatures open new shipping routes and climate research increases.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., said VT Halter was selected “to lead the charge in ongoing Homeland Security efforts to strengthen the Coast Guard icebreaker fleet and ensure U.S. sovereignty in the Arctic.” Hyde-Smith serves on the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds the Coast Guard. “These advanced ships will help address national security, law enforcement and humanitarian missions in the polar regions,” she said.
VT Halter will rely on Caterpillar for the icebreaker’s main engines, ABB/Trident Marine for an Azipod propulsion system, Raytheon for command and control systems integration, Jamestown Metal Marine for a joiner package, and Bronswerk for the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.
“This new project won’t affect our current backlog, which includes vessels for commercial and government programs,” Socha said. Prominent in the order book are an articulated tug-barge (ATB) that will be used for bunkering liquefied natural gas (LNG), a tug for an ATB, auxiliary personnel barracks barges for the Navy and logistics support vessels for undisclosed clients.
Polar Star, home-ported in Seattle, has exceeded its planned 30-year life by over a decade and needs heavy maintenance to stay in service, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Coast Guard’s other heavy icebreaker, Polar Sea, isn’t operational but is used for parts for Polar Star. Healy, the service’s lone medium icebreaker, supports National Science Foundation research and has additional duties.
The Coast Guard hopes to acquire up to six new polar icebreakers to close the gap with Russia’s fleet. Russia has over 40 icebreakers, with more on the way. The 33,000-ton design for VT Halter’s polar security cutter is much larger than current U.S. icebreakers and exceeds some of Russia’s nuclear-powered ones.
To support VT Halter’s icebreaker build, the Mississippi Development Authority will provide workforce training and assistance for dry-dock construction in Pascagoula.