The U.S. Coast Guard has awarded $20 million in fixed contracts to five American shipbuilders to design and analyze the service's next generation of polar icebreakers.

The contracts are intended to identify major cost drivers and design efficiencies with the aim of bringing down the overall cost of a new icebreaker, estimated to be $1 billion – and shorten the construction timeline, currently projected to be up to 10 years.

In awarding these preliminary design contracts, the Coast Guard is borrowing from the U.S. Navy's acquisition process.

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star prepares to moor to the AJ Pier in Juneau, Alaska, Aug. 2, 2013.  (Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst / U.S. Coast Guard)
The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star prepares to moor to the AJ Pier in Juneau, Alaska, Aug. 2, 2013.  (Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst / U.S. Coast Guard)

Under the terms of the contracts, $4 million has been awarded to Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, Louisiana; Fincantieri Marine Group in Washington, DC; General Dynamics/National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) in San Diego; Huntington Ingalls in Pascagoula, Mississippi; and VT Halter Marine also in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

"These contracts will provide invaluable data and insight as we seek to meet schedule and affordability objectives," said Rear Admiral Michael Haycock, the Coast Guard's Director of Acquisition Programs and Program Executive Officer.

"Our nation has an urgent need for heavy polar icebreaking capability. We formed an integrated program office with the Navy to take advantage of their shipbuilding experience. This puts us in the best possible position to succeed in this important endeavor."

Absent from the contract awards were Vigor Shipyards of Seattle and Bath Iron Works of Bath, Maine, two builders that have publicly expressed interest in the Coast Guard's icebreaker contract in the past.

The contracts are the latest step the U.S. Coast Guard has taken to advance the construction of its next icebreaker. Earlier in February 2017, the US and Canadian governments established a formal partnership that will allow the U.S. Coast Guard to use Canada's National Research Council in St John's, Newfoundland to test and validate potential heavy polar icebreaker design models.

The design studies awarded this past week are expected to take 12 months to complete, with some aspects of the studies concluding earlier. Then, the Coast Guard is planning to release a draft version of its request for proposals by the end of 2017, with a final request for proposals to be published in 2018. Assuming the program receives Congressional funding, the first contract for a single icebreaker will be awarded to a shipyard in 2019 with construction beginning soon thereafter.

Given that no U.S. shipyard has built a heavy polar icebreaker in over 40 years, the Coast Guard's early engagement with the industry is promising. The $20 million in design and analysis contracts will help both the Coast Guard and potential builders identify cost and design efficiencies and uncover any potential future complications.