When it comes to projecting power or protecting America's national interest, icebreakers don't top the list of most-intimidating ships.
But they play a key, if undervalued, role, according to a group of scientists, engineers, and shipping experts. Yet the US fleet, already tiny by global standards, is limping - barely able to meet its current commitments.
As a result, the group is calling for changes in the way the US's three "heavy" icebreakers - capable of resupplying US research bases in Antarctica and keeping shipping lanes open in the Arctic - are funded and used. The recommendations lay out short-term options while the panel prepares longer-term recommendations, due next year.
The problem has a familiar ring: vessels being asked to do too much with budgets too tight to replace the fleet's oldest ships.
"We've been very casual about icebreakers, thinking they are mostly for science," says Julie Brigham-Grette, a polar scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and member of the National Research Council (NRC) panel that produced the interim report.
Yet the ships' importance is expected to grow as climate change turns the ocean at the top of the world into an arena where countries vie for control over new shipping lanes, oil and gas exploration, and other economic activities.
In Antarctica, America's year-round presence fulfills treaty obligations and ensures that the US continues to have a strong voice in efforts to keep the continent a model of international cooperation.
Globally, roughly 40 icebreakers crunch their way through polar ice. About half of those belong to Russia, says Anita Jones, a University of Virginia computer scientist and former Pentagon official who heads the panel.
Meanwhile, the US's fleet of three heavy icebreakers is sailing along at half steam. The US has one modern vessel, the Healy, which began operating in 2000 and typically remains in the Arctic. The other two - the Polar Star and the Polar Sea - were built in the 1970s and are nearing the end of their design lives.
The Polar Star was out of commission for the 2003-2003 Antarctic resupply run, which fell to the Healy - delaying research projects in the Arctic. Over the past year, the Polar Sea has been tied to a dock with serious engine problems. The US Coast Guard and the National Science Foundation (NSF) reportedly have scrapped enough money together to get the Polar Sea underway by next fall. But the US was forced to contract with a Russian icebreaker to open the resupply channel during the 2004-2005 season.
The three icebreakers also serve scientist as floating labs for polar research.
And those demands are set to grow. Arctic countries, including the US, are asking scientists to continue to monitor environmental change in the Arctic.
Moreover, polar scientists from around the world are planning the International Polar Year, from 2007 to 2008, a monumental research effort at the top and bottom of the Earth. Over the long term, without modern icebreakers in our own fleet, it could be harder for US researchers to take part in international work, researchers say.
"You need something to bring to the table," says Don Perovich, who studies ice dynamics at the US Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab in Hanover, N.H.
Based on this science role, the White House recently wrested control of the ice-breaker fleet from the Coast Guard and handed it to the NSF. But the foundation has no experience managing a fleet with military and law enforcement missions, the NRC report says. Given these national-security and law enforcement roles, the National Research Council is also recommending that the icebreakers be brought back under the Coast Guard's aegis.