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NEWS | Jan. 23, 2024

U.S. Coast Guard’s Polar Star Cuts through Ice with help of NSWCPD

By Gary Ell

Thanks, in part, to a critical modernization program conducted by a team of engineers at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) and various U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) engineering and acquisition offices, Operation Deep Freeze 2024, the annual joint military service resupply mission to the remote Antarctica outpost of McMurdo, is currently underway through March 2024.

A key aspect of the exercise is the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Polar Star (WAGB 10) chopping its way through the 17-mile channel of ice to create a navigable route for cargo vessels to reach the U.S. Antarctic stations of the National Science Foundation, the lead agency for the United States Antarctic Program.

“The team of NSWCPD engineers and technicians assembled on this project is the finest and most capable group of individuals and professionals I have had the privilege of working with in my career. Their dedication and tenacity ensures that USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) will complete its critical annual mission well into the future, while USCG awaits the construction and delivery of the new Polar Security Cutter (PSC) assets,” NSWCPD’s USCG Lead Integrator Jim McClain said.

NSWCPD’s Polar Star Team has been recognized throughout the past year for outstanding technical prowess, leadership, program management, problem solving skills, dedication, and interagency collaboration with the USCG on the ship’s modernization program. NSWCPD Polar Star team members include participants from the command’s Machinery Programs and Platforms Department; Propulsion, Power, & Auxiliary Machinery Systems Department; and Cybersecure Hull, Mechanical, and Electrical Control Systems and Networks Department.

The team developed, designed, tested, installed, procured, and successfully executed a new $32 million government-owned, cutting-edge propulsion control system for our Nation’s icebreaker. As the only U.S. heavy icebreaker capable of making the ice channel to McMurdo Station in Antarctica for resupply, the U.S. government considers the Polar Star a national asset, and a ‘zero failure’ mission operation is required. It was a collaborative effort designed and installed concurrently with the NSWCPD Propulsion Power Distribution (PPD) control system upgrade.

“The success of this project has significantly increased the reliability, maintainability, and monitoring capability of the cutter’s complex propulsion plant,” McClain said, “Additionally, this project has substantially reduced crew workload and burden in maintaining an aged system greatly impacted by obsolescence and the absence of OEM and commercial support.”

NSWCPD’s Polar Team members included: Nicholas R. Dewey, James A. Covert, Steven D. Berry, Nicholas J. Stumpo, Walter J. Mc¬Donald, Seth D. McBride, David T. Stecco, Sean P. Buckley, George A. Reick, Zachary F. Bean, Scott D. Kade, John W. Sieber, James A. McClain, Jason S. Adams, Frank Lu, Randolph M. Buzilow, Daniel J. Carpenter, Qing Dong, Bobby L. Jones, Jason R. Meyers, Michael Perry, Brian K. Rader, Timothy L. Sipe, Luis E. Valledor, David M. Vought, and Martin J. Wichmann.
Homeported in Seattle, Washington, USCG Polar Star is the United States' only heavy icebreaker. Commissioned in 1976, she was built by Lockheed Shipbuilding along with her now decommissioned sister ship, Polar Sea (WAGB 11). Three aviation-grade gas turbine engines provide Polar Star with up to 75,000 horsepower, making her the most powerful ship in the U.S. Coast Guard. Each year, Polar Star travels to McMurdo Station, Antarctica to lead Operation Deep Freeze and break miles of ice up to 21 feet thick.

According to the USCG website, the U.S. Coast Guard has participated in ice operations since 1867, when the cutter Lincoln was dispatched to survey the newly acquired Alaskan Territory. Early ice capable cutters were primarily tasked with stopping the seal trade and enforcing whaling regulations. During WWII, Congress authorized the U.S. Coast Guard to design and build four new icebreakers, known today as the WIND class ships. These icebreakers were deployed to patrol the North Atlantic and assist Russian War efforts. In 1946, USCGC Northwind participated in Operation High Jump, which was a successful trip to Antarctica. By 1970, the need for a new, more powerful class of polar icebreakers became clear. In 1976, the world's two most powerful non-nuclear icebreakers, Polar Star and Polar Sea, were commissioned and placed into service.

Most Polar Star deployments used to be characterized as Arctic East Summer (AES), Arctic West Summer (AWS), or Operation Deep Freeze (ODF). AES and AWS were generally three-month deployments to the Arctic ice regions. The primary purpose of those deployments was scientific research. The J-frames and winches for coring and trawling operations near the stern and port side support at-sea studies in the fields of geology, volcanology, oceanography, sea-ice physics and other disciplines. AES port calls included the Caribbean, Greenland, Iceland, Canada and Europe. AWS port calls also sometimes included Alaskan ports such as Dutch Harbor, Juneau, Kodiak, and Nome.

ODF is an annual voyage from November to March, which traditionally was alternated each year between Polar Star and her sister ship Polar Sea. Polar Star now completes the ODF mission each year since Polar Sea is now decommissioned. The primary purpose of this deployment is to break a channel in the fast ice to McMurdo Station, the American base located near the Ross Ice Shelf. Polar Star then escorts research and supply vessels into McMurdo. ODF port calls may include various Pacific Islands, Australia, the Far East, and South America.

NSWCPD employs approximately 2,800 civilian engineers, scientists, technicians, and support personnel. The NSWCPD team does the research and development, test and evaluation, acquisition support, and in-service and logistics engineering for the non-nuclear machinery, ship machinery systems, and related equipment and material for Navy surface ships and submarines. NSWCPD is also the lead organization providing cybersecurity for all ship systems.