China reveals details of a newly designed heavy icebreaker

The ship will be a larger and more capable version of its predecessor, the Xue Long 2.

By Malte Humpert, High North News - December 17, 2019
A model of the proposed new Chinese heavy Polar Class icebreaker. (Courtesy of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation via High North News)

As part of China’s International Maritime Conference and Exhibition in Shanghai last week, China’s Shipbuilding Industry Corporation presented a model and technical specifications for a massive conventionally-powered icebreaker. With a displacement of 26,000 tons and the ability to break through ice three meters-thick continuously at two knots, the Polar Class 2 vessel comes close to Russia’s latest nuclear-powered Arktika (Project 22220) icebreakers in terms of size and ice-breaking capability. China thus far operates two icebreaking research vessels.

[The world’s largest nuclear icebreaker starts sea trials]

China had previously announced plans to develop a nuclear-powered icebreaker, when the country’s General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) invited bids for the design and construction of the new vessel earlier this year. At the time experts surmised that a nuclear-powered icebreaker could serve as a technology test bed to further develop nuclear-powered propulsion in large surface vessels, such as aircraft carriers for the Chinese Navy.

First heavy icebreaker for China

The proposed vessel is a larger and more capable derivative of China’s first home-built icebreaker Xue Long 2, which launched in 2018. Just like its predecessor, it will feature dual-directional icebreaking capabilities and as part of its focus on scientific operations will contain facilities and hangars for two helicopters as well as accommodations for 180 crew and staff.

The ship will employ flexible fuel options with the ability to use both marine diesel as well as natural gas, with the latter given priority when operating in environmentally sensitive areas.

China thus far operates two medium-powered icebreakers. The first one, Xue Long 1 (Snow Dragon) was originally constructed as an ice-class cargo ship in Ukraine in 1993 before it was purchased and outfitted by China as a polar research vessel in 1994. The country’s first home-built icebreaker, Xue Long 2, was developed in 2012 with design support from Finland’s engineering company Aker Arctic. The vessel was constructed by the Jiangnan Shipyard between December 2016 and summer 2019.

A decade of new icebreakers ahead

China is just one of several countries investing heavily in modernizing and expanding icebreaker capacity. This week Russia’s Arktika, the first in a series of at least five new nuclear icebreakers, began sea trials after more than six years of construction. In the United States, the U.S. Coast Guard has moved towards constructing and acquiring three heavy icebreakers over the next decade. Construction is scheduled to begin at VT Halter Marine’s shipyard along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in 2021 with the first delivery in 2024.