The U.S. Coast Guard has participated in ice operations since 1867, when the cutter LINCOLN was dispatched to survey the newly acquired Alaskan Territory. Early ice capable cutters were primarily tasked with stopping the seal trade and enforcing whaling regulations. During WWII, Congress authorized the USCG to design and build four new icebreakers, known today as the WIND class ships. These icebreakers were deployed to patrol the North Atlantic and assist Russian War efforts. In 1946, USCGC NORTHWIND participated in Operation High Jump which was a successful trip to Antarctica. By 1970, the need for a new, more powerful class of polar icebreakers became clear. In 1976, the world's two most powerful non-nuclear icebreakers, POLAR STAR and POLAR SEA, were commissioned and placed into service.

Most POLAR STAR deployments used to be characterized as Arctic East Summer, Arctic West Summer, or Operation Deep Freeze. Arctic East Summer (AES) and Arctic West Summer (AWS) were generally three-month deployments to the Arctic ice regions. The primary purpose of those deployments was scientific research. The J-frames and winches for coring and trawling operations near the stern and port side support at-sea studies in the fields of geology, volcanology, oceanography, sea-ice physics and other disciplines. AES port calls included the Caribbean, Greenland, Iceland, Canada and Europe. AWS port calls also sometimes included Alaskan ports such as Dutch Harbor, Juneau, Kodiak, and Nome.

Operation Deep Freeze (ODF) is an annual voyage from November to March, which traditionally was alternated each year between POLAR STAR and her sister ship POLAR SEA. POLAR STAR now completes the ODF mission each year since POLAR SEA is now decommissioned. The primary purpose of this deployment is to break a channel in the fast ice to McMurdo Station, the American base located near the Ross Ice Shelf. POLAR STAR then escorts research and supply vessels into McMurdo. Deep Freeze port calls may include various Pacific Islands, Australia, the Far East and South America.