C.G. fleet modernization hits shoals

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It has pulled eight cutters from service, but construction of the replacement vessels is on hold

It has pulled eight cutters from service, but construction of the replacement vessels is on hold

The Coast Guard’s Deepwater modernization program is in deep trouble, with big cost overruns, long delays in bringing new cutters on line, and design flaws resulting in cracked and buckled hulls, chronic shaft-alignment problems and other issues. The design issues have forced the agency to take eight 123-foot cutters off the water and delay production of its 147-foot fast response cutter, or FRC, the workhorse of its 21st-century fleet.

Still, Coast Guard officials say the agency is used to operating with too few ships and can do its many jobs — including search and rescue — despite the loss of eight cutters. It will move cutters around and assign two crews to some of them so the vessels can put into port, change crews and go out again quickly, logging more patrol time. The agency also can rely on its new 33-foot Special Purpose Craft, capable of taking 8-foot seas and running 60 mph, and its Customs and Border Protection patrol boats to help in near-shore waters, says Lt. Cmdr. Chris O’Neil, Coast Guard 7th District spokesman.

“It’s not as dramatic as it would seem,” says Cmdr. Gwen Keenan, deputy commander of Sector Key West, where the eight sidelined cutters were based. She says the cutters already were on restricted operating schedules because of a 6-inch hairline crack discovered a year earlier in the hull of the cutter Matagorda after it rode out Hurricane Ivan at sea. Then, in mid-November, mechanics found buckling in the hull of the cutter Attu, another 123-footer, during a routine engine change-out. Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commandant, suspended operation of these eight 123-footers at November’s end for the crews’ safety. The cutters all are converted 110-footers, the first of 49 older cutters that were to be lengthened and kept in service as a “bridge” until the new FRCs come on line.

“The 123s were a bridging strategy,” Keenan says. “They were never meant to be a permanent solution, but it was a bridge too far. There probably was not enough life left in them to make the leap.”

The Coast Guard had hoped to bring the first of 56 FRCs into service as replacements for the 123s and 110s by 2007, but that $3 billion program is stalled indefinitely. The FRC design — its first cutter with hull, deck and bulkheads made of lightweight laminates or composites — is under review after tank-testing showed excessive cavitation, usually a result of a poor hull shape. While the Coast Guard reviews that design, it is putting out a request for bids to build a proven patrol boat to meet its needs until it gets its own FRC design back on track. The first of 12 of those should be on the water by 2010, says Mary Elder, the Coast Guard’s Deepwater spokesperson.

The Coast Guard also is grappling with problems with its long-distance 418-foot National Security Cutter, which carries helicopters and interceptor craft. The first was christened Nov. 10 in Pascagoula, Miss., but the Coast Guard’s own engineers are concerned about excessive vibration and fatigue tolerance in the hull, which could reduce the $564 million ship’s 30-year service life, according to spokesman Lt. Dave Oney. He says changes will be made in the next seven 418s to ensure they last as long as they’re supposed to.

The 25-year modernization of the Coast Guard’s cutter and aircraft fleet has ballooned from $17 billion to $25 billion, in part because the Coast Guard had to revise its plans after Sept. 11 to fulfill new Homeland Security missions and because of a Homeland-related push to accelerate the timetable to replace its offshore — or deepwater — fleet. The program is supposed to replace or modernize 90 ships and 200 aircraft. The Coast Guard is the lead federal agency responsible for identifying and intercepting suspicious vessels far offshore.

It awarded the Deepwater contract to Integrated Coast Guard Systems, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, in 2002. Deepwater spokesperson Elder says the contract was awarded on a performance basis, which means the Coast Guard tells the contractor what the cutters must do, and the contractors design and build them. She says the agency is breaking new ground in administering these performance-based contracts and expects to do better in the future.

“Deepwater is a 25-year program,” she says. “We’re just getting into it. Are we committed to doing it better? Yes, we are.”

One piece of good news is that the 123s demonstrated the utility of a stern launch platform that enables law-

enforcement RIBs to slip right off the stern into the water and drive back up on it when they return to the cutter, O’Neil says. That was one reason for extending the 110s — so teams wouldn’t have to launch RIBs off the side with davits, a much riskier operation. He says the 123s also proved that the Coast Guard’s new computerized communications, command, control and surveillance technology that tracks targets on the water really works.

Still, the loss of eight cutters hasn’t been received any better by Coast Guard personnel than it has by the agency’s congressional critics. “If you talk to anyone in the Coast Guard, they’ll tell you they hate to see eight cutters tied up and taken out of service,” says O’Neil. “Our crews are a particularly proud collection of sailors.”