Coast Guard: Status of Polar Icebreaking Fleet Capability and Recapitalization Plan

GAO-17-698R: Published: Sep 25, 2017. Publicly Released: Sep 25, 2017

What GAO Found

Various responsibilities drive the Coast Guard’s determination of its polar icebreaking mission requirements, and the Coast Guard has been unable to address all polar icebreaking requests since 2010. For example, the Coast Guard reported fulfilling 78 percent (25 of 32) of U.S. government agency requests for polar icebreaking services during fiscal year 2010 through 2016. Coast Guard officials cited various factors affecting the Coast Guard’s ability to meet all requests, particularly the unavailability of its heavy polar icebreakers.

The Coast Guard has taken various actions to advance its heavy polar icebreaker acquisition program since establishing it in 2013, such as partnering with the Navy and engaging the shipbuilding industry, but faces risks in implementing its accelerated acquisition schedule. In particular, in October 2016, the Coast Guard released a notional schedule for the heavy polar acquisition program showing delivery of the first of three heavy polar icebreakers in fiscal year 2023–three years sooner than initially planned. However, Coast Guard officials reported that should acquisition planning documents, including acquisition and lifecycle cost estimates, not be completed and approved by the end of fiscal year 2017, the program may not be able to meet its schedule for releasing the request for proposals for detail design and construction (a key step in the acquisition process) in mid-fiscal year 2018. This may then delay the contract award scheduled for fiscal year 2019 and extend the proposed delivery date.

The Coast Guard plans to extend the service life of the Polar Star to bridge a potential heavy icebreaker capability gap, but has not completed assessments to determine the cost of the plan. According to Coast Guard planning documents, the Coast Guard faces a potential heavy polar icebreaker capability gap of up to three years between the end of the Polar Star’s service life and the scheduled delivery of the lead replacement heavy icebreaker in fiscal year 2023. While the Coast Guard considered various options to bridge this potential heavy icebreaker gap, in a January 2017 study the Coast Guard reported that it was planning for a limited service life extension of the Polar Star to keep it operational until fiscal year 2025, at an initial cost estimate of $75 million. However, the Coast Guard has not completed a formal cost estimate for this effort and we have previously reported that the $75 million estimate may be unrealistic. In keeping with OMB guidance on making decisions about federal programs, decisions about the limited service life extension should include comprehensive information about the benefits and costs associated with the planned upgrades, including its capability to meet operational objectives. In addition, cost estimating best practices should be used when developing the formal cost estimate. These best practices outline the steps that should be followed to develop a credible cost estimate to include, but are not limited to, conducting a risk and uncertainty analysis that accounts for the probability of risk occurrence. The Coast Guard would benefit from ensuring that it has completed its cost estimate before committing to this approach.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Coast Guard is responsible for providing polar icebreaking capability for the United States and operates two polar icebreakers: a heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, that is nearing the end of its expected service life, and the Healy, a medium icebreaker. To maintain polar icebreaking capability to access the Arctic and Antarctic (i.e. the Polar Regions), the Coast Guard is seeking to recapitalize its polar icebreaking fleet through the acquisition of three new heavy polar icebreakers.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 included a provision for GAO to review various issues associated with U.S. polar icebreaking capabilities and the status of the Coast Guard’s efforts to recapitalize its polar icebreaking fleet. This report discusses: (1) the extent to which the Coast Guard’s existing polar icebreaking capabilities address key mission requirements; (2) the status of the Coast Guard’s efforts to recapitalize its heavy polar icebreaking fleet, and how it has addressed challenges it has identified in implementing the effort; and (3) the potential heavy polar icebreaking capability gap, if any, that the Coast Guard has identified and the plans of the Coast Guard, and other federal agencies that depend on its heavy polar icebreaking capability, to address it.

GAO analyzed Coast Guard polar icebreaker requirements, performance data, and acquisition planning documentation, as well as Coast Guard and DHS policies. GAO interviewed Coast Guard, Navy, and National Science Foundation officials about the status of the heavy polar icebreaker acquisition program and their efforts to address the potential heavy polar icebreaker capability gap.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the Coast Guard complete a comprehensive cost estimate for a limited service life extension of the Polar Star that follows cost estimating best practices before committing to this approach for bridging the potential capability gap. The Coast Guard concurred with our recommendation.


For more information, contact Jennifer Grover at (202) 512-7141 or