The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the U.S. Coast Guard could avoid costly rework and further delays to its Polar Security Cutter program if it stabilizes the ship’s design before starting construction.
The Coast Guard’s only active heavy polar icebreaker today, the aging Polar Star, primarily helps ensure U.S. access to Antarctica. The Coast Guard is working to design and build three Polar Security Cutters (PSC) to replace it. It is partnering with the Navy to procure the new PSCs and plans to invest at least $11.6 billion for acquisition, operations, and maintenance of these cutters. But the U.S. hasn’t built a heavy polar icebreaker in almost 50 years, which has created challenges with designing and understanding how to build the cutters. For example, designing the hull to withstand icebreaking extended the design phase by at least three years and delayed construction start.
The Coast Guard intends for the Polar Star to be available until at least the second PSC is operational, and has efforts underway to maintain and extend the life of this cutter. However, GAO says the Polar Star ‘s deteriorating systems present additional challenges, with top issues related to propulsion and electrical systems. Even with the Polar Star in operation, the Coast Guard has determined that it needs more polar icebreakers to meet its missions in the Arctic and Antarctic.
GAO found however that the new PSC design is not yet mature, leading to delays in the shipyard. Originally projected for design completion in March 2021, the delays have meant that the Coast Guard has pushed back construction of the first cutter to March 2024, which GAO also thinks is optimistic. The watchdog has cautioned the Coast Guard that starting construction with an immature design is contrary to leading practices. In another ongoing Coast Guard program, GAO found that construction started before the design was mature, resulting in costly rework and schedule delays.
Some of the design challenges already confronted include errors in design calculations that required significant, late design revisions. Most notably, around May 2022, the shipyard identified that it had not designed the damage control deck in accordance with design requirements. The damage control deck is the lowest deck that has access throughout the cutter, and typically contains the main repair equipment and machinery used to control flooding. Program officials told GAO that the shipyard originally designed this deck too low in the ship for its intended purpose and had to move the deck because it would be susceptible to flooding if the ship sustained damage, but did not adjust the height of the new deck location. Once the shipyard realized this error, it had to increase the height of this deck. This subsequently required the resizing of tanks, such as those for fuel and potable water, in the cutter’s design. The shipyard finished incorporating these changes into the design by November 2022. Bollinger Shipyard representatives who took over ownership after this design change occurred told GAO that the shipyard should have identified something this fundamental earlier in the process because it has spillover ramifications for other parts of the design.
The government watchdog is also concerned that the PSC program likely has unreliable schedule and cost estimates. For example, its review found that the acquisition program baseline includes a delivery date for the first PSC but not for the third PSC. At a minimum, without a delivery date for the third cutter, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may have fewer opportunities for oversight if the program experiences schedule delays in the years before the program is expected to be declared fully operational. In addition, key shipyard business systems that track labor hours, costs, and schedule performance were determined not to be acceptable for use, which affects the reliability of data. The Coast Guard and shipyard are already taking steps to address the data limitations and GAO says it will continue to monitor progress through its annual assessment of DHS’s major acquisition programs.
This is not the first time GAO has had cause for concern over the PSC program. In September 2018, the watchdog reported that it was facing risks in four key areas: design, technology, cost and schedule. GAO also said at the time that the estimated construction time of three years was optimistic compared with selected lead ships for other shipbuilding programs, and that a projected delivery in 2023 was not informed by a realistic assessment of required shipbuilding activities. Now, GAO believes that the program’s revised projected date to hold the final production readiness review needed to inform a production decision on the lead cutter is unlikely to be met. In order to reach the program’s goal of 100 percent functional design completed prior to March 2024, GAO says the shipyard would need to increase its design completion rate from about three percent every six months to almost 21 percent for each of the two remaining six-month periods. Indeed, Bollinger Shipyard representatives said that the biggest challenge they identified for the program since they took over the shipyard in November 2022 is advancing the engineering and design to a point where construction can begin. They told GAO that they have embedded their own design experts with the design subcontractor to help work through issues and provide additional expertise.
To help with program scheduling concerns, the Coast Guard is planning to begin construction on up to eight prototype units of the cutter to better inform how long it will take to build the lead PSC. DHS and Coast Guard approved the prototype unit concept for the lead PSC in 2022.
GAO is concerned that the PSC program still faces several challenges that will further delay its progress if not addressed. Consequently, it is making two recommendations, including that DHS ensures the design is sufficiently mature before the Coast Guard starts cutter construction and that DHS ensures the Coast Guard adds the third PSC delivery date into its acquisition program baseline. DHS concurred with both recommendations and aims to implement the first by September 30, 2024 and the second by June 28, 2024.