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The Coast Guard Keeps Trying To Build Ships Before Finding Out If They Work, Watchdog Says

  The Coast Guard continues to build new ships well before it has nailed down the required technology and design parameters, leading to a co...

 The Coast Guard continues to build new ships well before it has nailed down the required technology and design parameters, leading to a costly delay in construction for reworking the vessels, a watchdog warned in recent reports.

The service plans to retire elements of its aging fleet and commissioned three new icebreakers, known as Polar Security Cutters (PSCs), and 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs) that are essential to the Coast Guard’s day-to-day national security missions. Years ago, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned the Coast Guard’s failure to complete basic design requirements for both programs would produce undesirable results, but as of 2023 both the PSC and OPC programs were billions over initial cost estimates and may not be complete by the time their predecessors age out, according to a July testimony for Congress.

“The Coast Guard, however, continues to face cost growth and schedule delays in some of its newer acquisitions because it has not obtained the right knowledge at the right time,” GAO wrote in the testimony. 

For example, the GAO recommended the Coast Guard finish designing the davit, a crane fitted to the offshore cutter that raises and lowers boats, and test it in a realistic environment before starting construction in 2020, according to a report. As of June 2023, as the service is building its fourth OPC, the davit remained unproven.

Other systems like central heating and cooling, were likewise incomplete, according to the report.

The Coast Guard initiated construction on the cutter when the functional design was 97% complete. “While that difference may seem insignificant,” GAO wrote, “this design instability led to construction rework and contributed to an estimated cost increase of 19 percent for the lead ship.” 

The estimated cost spiked from $12.5 billion to $17.6 billion, according to GAO.

For the icebreaker, the Coast Guard presumed that it did not need to test certain technologies because they had been successfully employed on other vessels, according to GAO. Now the program is three years behind schedule at $3.5 billion over budget, and the lead ship won’t begin construction until at least March 2024.  

Coast Guard officials attributed the multiple design overhauls to several challenges, including the need to incorporate steel thick enough to grind through thick ice sheets and a unique, unusually blunt hull design. Building a hull at least twice as thick as those of regular ships will also extend production time.

Math errors on the part also contributed to delays, according to the report. At the rate the design is being perfected, it would take eight years to develop a workable plan.

Right now the U.S. has one operational icebreaker, the Polar Star, patrolling the arctic for roughly half a century, according to GAO. The Coast Guard has invested $75 million to extend its life beyond the projected expiration date of 2023. 

The Department of Homeland Security “remains committed to procuring the icebreaking capacity the Coast Guard needs to cost effectively and efficiently represent U.S. interests in the polar regions,” the agency wrote in a response to GAO’s findings.

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