The Arctic is melting, with June 2016 sea ice once again hitting record low levels relative to ... well, as long as the government has been keeping track. That's expected to increase sea traffic in the region, and also the need for Coast Guard icebreakers to open lanes for commercial vessels, and to rescue unlucky vessels when they get stuck in the ice.
For more than two years, the U.S. Coast Guard has been asking Congress to buy it new icebreakers to help open the Arctic for business. Now, at long last, it sounds like someone is going to do something to try to fix the problem, and get the Coast Guard the icebreakers it needs.
Shrinking ice cap, shrinking icebreaker fleet
Thirty years ago, with the Cold War still in full swing and the Soviet Union a certified menace in the North Atlantic, the U.S. Coast Guard boasted a fleet of eight icebreakers to help project U.S. power into the Arctic. Technically speaking, we still have three of those icebreakers -- but one of them, USCGC Polar Sea, is an unserviceable heap that hasn't sailed in years .
What remains of the fleet is really just two rust buckets: the medium icebreaker USCGC Healy, 17 years old and well past her prime, and her even older big sister, the heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Star, now entering her fifth decade of service since Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) built her in 1976.
Now ideally, the Coast Guard says it would like to retire those boats and replace them with 10 shiny new icebreakers, which could cost as much as $7.8 billion. Some estimates say the Coast Guard could get by with only six icebreakers. The point, though, is that all of these estimates are basically moot until the Coast Guard gets moving and actually starts building some boats. But critics say that, at the rate it's going, the Coast Guard probably won't get even one icebreaker built before 2026.
The U.S. Navy to the rescue?
This is a problem for the U.S. Navy, which owns no icebreakers of its own, yet depends on the Coast Guard's icebreakers to help it fulfill its mission of "winning wars, deterring aggression, and maintaining freedom of the seas" -- all seas, including the Arctic. That's hard to do when large portions of the Arctic are often inaccessible due to ice.
Unwilling to wait on the Coast Guard to fill its "icebreaker gap," the Navy is now floating a plan to have Congress provide the Navy with $1 billion to begin construction of an icebreaker -- which it would then transfer to the Coast Guard upon completion. In fact, the Navy would like to get even more money, and build the Coast Guard at least two icebreakers within the next five to seven years. This sounds like a strange arrangement, but according to The Navy Times, the Navy is simply better at getting ships built quickly than the Coast Guard is.
The Navy Times also points out that the last time the Coast Guard got an icebreaker, the Navy and Coast Guard had to work out a similar arrangement to get it built. As retired Coast Guard Rear Admiral Jeff Garrett, who served as Healy's first CO, put it: "Money is money. Congress can put the money wherever it wants" -- so long as the icebreaker gets built.
Who gets the loot?
Speaking of money, which defense contractors are best positioned to make some money off this contract?
Lockheed Martin, Polar Star's builder, is one obvious choice. While primarily an aerospace company, Lockheed has kept a hand in the shipbuilding business, and is currently one of two companies building the Navy's fleet of littoral combat ships. Another likely favorite is Huntington Ingalls Industries (NYSE:HII), which has long been one of the Coast Guard's (and the Navy's) favored builders. Among its other virtues, Huntington Ingalls currently owns the Avondale shipyard that built Healy.
Granted, there are a whole host of smaller, privately owned shipyards in the U.S. that could also bid on this work, including such names as Bollinger Shipyards and Eastern Shipbuilding Group, both of which have won work from the Coast Guard in the past. But among the publicly traded shipbuilders you can actually invest in, and that have a serious chance of winning the work, I think Lockheed Martin and Huntington Ingalls are probably your best bets.
Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 284 out of more than 75,000 rated members.
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