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Coast Guard Acquisitions: Status of Coast Guard's Heavy Polar Icebreaker Acquisition

GAO-18-385R Published: Apr 13, 2018. Publicly Released: Apr 13, 2018.
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Fast Facts

The Coast Guard and Navy are preparing to build three heavy polar icebreakers to conduct missions in the Antarctic and Arctic. The single active heavy polar icebreaker is reaching the end of its useful service life.

This interim report provides an update on the shipbuilding effort.

In February 2018, goals for the ships' construction schedules and performance capabilities were approved, and a maximum total cost set at $9.827 billion.

In March 2018, the Coast Guard solicited proposals for design and construction.

We are reviewing the risks the icebreaker program faces in meeting these goals, and expect to issue another report this summer.

Coast Guard's Heavy Polar Icebreaker Polar Star

A photo shows the ship in an ice field.

A photo shows the ship in an ice field.

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What GAO Found

To maintain its polar icebreaking capability, the U.S. Coast Guard established a heavy polar icebreaker acquisition program in 2012 to acquire three new ships. In 2016, the Coast Guard established an integrated program office with the Navy to leverage the Navy's shipbuilding expertise for acquiring heavy polar icebreakers. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) approved the program's cost, schedule, and performance baselines in its Acquisition Review Board in February 2018. The corresponding Acquisition Decision Memorandum was signed in March 2018.

The heavy polar icebreaker program's total program threshold cost baseline reflects the maximum amount the program should cost--$9.827 billion, which includes acquisition, operations, and maintenance costs for the three heavy polar icebreakers over their entire 30-year lifecycle. GAO has an ongoing review that will assess the reliability of this cost estimate.

Prior to setting the program baselines, the Coast Guard revised the heavy polar icebreaker's operational requirements to make the program more affordable, and the revisions included:

  • adjusting the range of operating temperatures;
  • reducing science and survey requirements; and 
  • adding space, weight, and power reservations for Navy equipment.

With the program baselines set, the Navy released the request for proposals for the heavy polar icebreaker's design and construction contract in March 2018. DHS oversees the heavy polar icebreaker's acquisition management activities while the Coast Guard and Navy share responsibilities for executing the acquisition through their integrated program office. The Navy anticipates awarding the program's design and construction contract with $150 million that is currently available from fiscal year 2017.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since 1965, the Coast Guard has been responsible for providing polar icebreaking capability for the United States. The Coast Guard currently has two active polar icebreakers including one heavy polar icebreaker that is nearing the end of its expected service life.

Section 122 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 included a provision for GAO to assess the cost of, and schedule for, the procurement of new heavy polar icebreaker vessels.

This report provides information on (1) the status of Coast Guard's and Navy's efforts to acquire new heavy polar icebreakers and (2) how DHS, Coast Guard, and Navy are planning to manage and oversee that acquisition.

To conduct this review, GAO reviewed acquisition documents; DHS, Coast Guard, and Navy acquisition policies; agreements between DHS, Coast Guard, and Navy for the integrated program office; the Federal Acquisition Regulation, Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement, and the Department of Homeland Security Acquisition Regulation; and interviewed knowledgeable Coast Guard and Navy officials.


GAO is not making recommendations in this report but will continue to examine the Coast Guard's polar icebreaker acquisition efforts as part of our ongoing work.

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ConstructionCost and scheduleCost estimatesFederal acquisitionsGovernment procurementIcebreakersOperational requirementsRisk managementShipbuildingShips