A Government Accountability Office official told lawmakers Thursday that the Coast Guard “needs to ensure that it has developed all the elements of a sound business case before making future investments” and try to minimize gaps between the aging Polar Star and the future icebreaker while assuming a realistic timetable for replacement.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Michael Haycock, assistant commandant for acquisition, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation that there were “some provisions” in the newly passed Coast Guard reauthorization bill that “will benefit us in our major acquisition programs.”
The two-year budget bill was sent to President Trump’s desk Tuesday.
“The Coast Guard’s current icebreaking fleet provides minimal capacity to carry out current icebreaking missions in the polar regions and does not facilitate uninhibited access or self-rescue. To ensure access and project sovereign presence in the high latitudes, that nation must take swift action to rebuild and enhance this national capability,” Haycock said at a hearing to review icebreaker progress. “…The Coast Guard and the nation need a fleet of polar security cutters that cannot only break through the barriers that stand in the way of our access to the polar regions in our areas of responsibility, but can also execute the full range of maritime security, safety and stewardship missions once they arrive on site.”
The Coast Guard is focused on a “6-3-1 approach” to recapitalize the polar icebreaking fleet: six icebreakers total, three of those with heavy-duty icebreaking capability, and one needed ASAP.
“We’re moving out at an accelerated program to provide these national assets quickly and as affordably as we can,” Haycock said, noting that an integrated program office with the Navy would “leverage each service’s experience and lessons learned across similar shipbuilding programs.”
“Over the past two years we’ve pursued a number of strategies to reduce program risk, including a comprehensive review and validation of operational requirements, and an extensive industry study strategy with five U.S. shipyards and formed development of the system specification,” he continued. “This past March we released a solicitation for detailed design and production of up to three polar security cutters. Source selection is ongoing, and we are on track to award a design to one U.S. shipyard this fiscal year.”
“With the continued support of the administration and Congress, we are as close as we’ve ever been in the last 40 years to recapitalizing our old polar icebreaking fleet.”
The admiral acknowledged “the urgency expressed by the administration and Congress” and the “challenging schedule” to move forward quickly. “However, we are confident that our acquisition approach and our risk-reduction efforts will position the integrated program office to deliver the first polar security cutter as soon as possible,” Haycock said. “And prudence demands that we continue investing in a modernized Coast Guard.”
GAO Acquisition and Sourcing Management Director Marie Mak visited the Polar Star over the summer, and gave “much credit” to the Coast Guard “for doing everything possible to keep that cutter operational.”
“While we all agree with the Coast Guard that it is critical to proceed quickly, as quickly as possible to replace the Polar Star, it has to be done with a realistic schedule,” she said. “An overly optimistic schedule does not provide decision-makers with reasonable timeframes of when the replacement cutters will be operational. This puts pressure on the Coast Guard to potentially take shortcuts, which in the long run can end up costing more time and money than taking the time to do things right the first time, up front.”
Mak noted the GAO found that while the Coast Guard “completed design studies, ice trials and spoke to industry on key technologies, they did not systematically assess the maturity and risk associated with these technologies.”
“Given that this type of icebreaker has not been built in the U.S. for over four decades, and that it has unique requirements to operate in extreme conditions, such as being able to traverse both poles year-round, we believe it is important to not underestimate the effort required to develop the cutters’ technologies. The best way to address this is for an independent, objective group to assess the maturity of each technology, which then lays out the potential risk and allows the Coast Guard to put in place appropriate mitigation strategies,” she said.
Mak added that she found it “encouraging that DHS and the Coast Guard have already initiated efforts to address our concern in this risk area, especially since we have found that technologies often have a ripple effect on the overall design, cost and schedule of an acquisition.”
“Much of our prior acquisition shipbuilding work has found that lead ships routinely exceed cost and schedule targets and do not meet planned performance goals,” she cautioned. “This is because shipbuilding programs typically start with a weak business case. Specifically, these programs do not fully assess risk and have unrealistic cost schedule and performance goals.”
Congressional Research Service Naval Affairs Specialist Ronald O’Rourke warned that late delivery “could equate to an increase in the cost of building the ship,” and noted that the government “can insulate itself against that risk by using a fixed-price contract, which the Coast Guard and Navy plan to do.”
“The possibility of a late delivery is something Congress may consider in connection with investments for maintaining the Polar Star and/or seeking a short-term bridging charter of an existing icebreaker,” O’Rourke said. “The possibility of a late delivery could also become an argument for starting construction of the new icebreaker as soon as its design is brought to a high level of completion and the ship is otherwise ready to begin construction.”