The Government Accountability Office cast doubt this week on the Coast Guard’s tight timetable for replacing its heavy polar icebreaker as House appropriators rejected a move to restore funding for the project right before leaving for the five-week summer recess.
A day after USCG and GAO officials stressed the importance of icebreaker funding at Tuesday’s House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation hearing, an amendment offered by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) to reinsert $750 million for the icebreaker failed at the House Appropriations Committee.
“This funding was requested by the administration because the United States is at an increasing disadvantage in the Arctic with the stronger presence of the Russian fleet, and with China building more of its own icebreakers. We can no longer afford to delay, yet the requested icebreaker is not funded in this bill,” Roybal-Allard said Wednesday at the markup of the FY 2019 Homeland Security appropriations bill.
Under the spending bill, the Coast Guard would get $9.3 billion, which doesn’t include the requested icebreaker funds. Roybal-Allard’s amendment to resurrect the USCG icebreaker funds failed 21-29.
The Senate version of the appropriations bill keeps the icebreaker money in there, while the House version reallocates the money in part to fund a border wall.
At Tuesday’s Transportation subcommittee hearing, Vice Adm. Michael McAllister, deputy Coast Guard commandant for mission support, stressed that “recapitalization continues to be a Coast Guard priority.”
“We’re on track to award a contract for small unmanned aircraft system capability for the National Security Cutter fleet this fiscal year. We expect to begin production of the first offshore patrol cutter later this year. And we’re well poised to award the detailed design and construction contract and our heavy polar icebreaker program in fiscal year 2019. And we are continuing activities to recapitalize the inland waterways fleet,” McAllister said.
“And while recapitalizing an aging fleet is critical, sustaining that fleet and the related shore infrastructure is also a priority,” he added. “The Coast Guard needs to rebuild readiness with sound investments in our operations and maintenance accounts — while the other armed forces have begun to be made whole, your Coast Guard has not yet seen much relief. This results in deferred maintenance, fewer spare parts and reliability and security concerns with our C4 IT systems.”
Marie Mak, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office, discussed a new report in which the GAO found that “the Coast Guard is facing several key challenges with its acquisition portfolio management approach.”
“Despite better efforts to request what it needs in the fiscal year 2019 capital investment plan or CIP and the unfunded priorities list, the Coast Guard continues to take this short-term focus for planning and prioritizing and it is not addressing the long-term affordability of its portfolio. This results in where we are today of having to recapitalize so many assets simultaneously,” Mak told the committee.
Short-term planning by the USCG, she said, “has driven the acquisition of its heavy polar icebreaker program to its current situation, where it has not established a sound acquisition business case.”
“We found that the schedule for delivering the new heavy icebreaker is optimistic. It is based on when the Coast Guard’s only operational heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, may no longer be operational, rather than building a schedule based on knowledge such as using historical lead ship construction times. This puts the program at risk of missing its delivery dates and potentially widening the icebreaking capability gap,” Mak said.
A short-term acquisition management approach “has driven both the Polar Star and the medium endurance cutters to operate well beyond their design service lives,” she added. “While it is not unusual for the Coast Guard to operate assets well beyond what was originally planned, both of these assets are requiring a larger amount of time and resources just to keep their current operational capacity.”
“Specifically, the Polar Star is requiring additional time for its annual maintenance. Although the Coast Guard plans for a service life extension for this icebreaker, it is unclear how the Coast Guard will be able to complete this work as planned during the already extended maintenance timeframes and continue meeting its annual Antarctica mission.”
Mak noted that with medium-endurance cutters, “obsolescence of parts is a significant issue and maintenance costs continue to rise.”
“At this time, the Coast Guard has yet to determine how many of these cutters will undergo a service life extension program before the offshore patrol cutters become operational,” she said. “The bottom line is that the Coast Guard cannot continue to use its annual budgets to plan for the long-term affordability of its major acquisitions. The Coast Guard is in a position where it faces some difficult and complex decisions with potentially significant costs and mission implications.”
“As maritime conditions and threats continue to change, it is not ideal timing to have any capability gap with icebreakers or medium endurance cutters. As a result, it is vitally important for the Coast Guard to develop a more strategic and comprehensive approach for managing its acquisition portfolio.”
Of the $1.4 billion in overall Coast Guard funding cut by House appropriators, McAllister said “the most critical gap there is certainly the polar icebreaker.”
“We certainly appreciate the support of both the administration and Congress for our polar icebreaker recapitalization program. And we’re hopeful that the fiscal year 2019 appropriations once enacted will fund that program so that we can continue on schedule, take advantage of the significant industry interest that is currently sparked by that program,” he said, adding that delays “will put our ability to field critical icebreaking capability to protect our national sovereignty at risk.”
McAllister assessed that “certainly” the construction schedule “is going to be at risk if we do not get the $750 million in fiscal year 2019.”
“As it’s structured now, our intention is to not only award detailed design and construction in fiscal year 2019 but do the purchase of a variety of different elements under that contract, which could include long lead time materials to buy into the second,” he said. “We are not going to be able to do that without that $750 million in fiscal year 2019.”
Mak concurred that “without the $750 million, there is no way they can purchase the construction or contract for the construction of the lead ship — and we already have concerns with the schedule even as it is.”
Vice Adm. Daniel Abel, deputy Coast Guard commandant for operations, emphasized that “there is no wiggle room here.”
“Our plans on the high latitudes north and south are modernized governance, domain awareness on what’s going on in partnerships — you can’t do any of that if you can’t show up,” Abel testified. “We have no buddy system with heavy icebreakers. And as the Polar Star gets older and older and older, she’s more at risk. If something were to happen to her when she’s at the high latitude, there is nothing with the U.S. flag that can come rescue her.”
“So, not only do we need the polar replacement quickly, but limping along the Polar Star continues to put the Coast Guard at risk.”