When the Coast Guard’s new National Security Cutter, the Bertholf, stopped four boats carrying bales of cocaine 80 miles off the coast of Guatemala in July, it was welcome news for the service’s “troubled” Deepwater modernization program.
Two and a half years after the service fired its lead contractor and set off to build up its own acquisition work force, Coast Guard leaders are hoping that the “troubled” tag will soon become a thing of the past.
“We have an organization that we are very proud of,” Rear Adm. Ronald Rabago, assistant commandant for acquisition, told National Defense. “It’s not yet perfect — I would never say that — but in the last two and half years it has moved along dramatically and is able to acquire any system or asset that the Coast Guard might need in the future.”
Deepwater is a 25-year, $24.2 billion effort to modernize the Coast Guard fleet with a mix of ships, cutters, aircraft and a command, control and communications backbone to tie them all together. It initially hired the Lockheed Martin-Northrop Grumman consortium, Integrated Coast Guard Systems, to manage the program.
Deepwater began to run into technical problems — especially after the 9/11 attacks reshaped the missions the service was expected to carry out. The consensus was that the Coast Guard did not have the personnel on hand to oversee ICGS’ work on such a complex program.
In 2007, the Coast Guard announced that it would take over management of the program. To do so, it would have to build its own acquisition work force.
The service still conducts business with ICGS, Rabago said. It could not extract itself from the relationship overnight and there are “a few last task orders” to be completed, he said.
Nevertheless, the Coast Guard will end its relationship with the consortium by January 2011.
“We wanted to make sure we did it in an orderly, smart fashion and not just simply cut things off and create problems for the Coast Guard,” Rabago said. It may continue to award contracts to Northrop Grumman or Lockheed Martin individually.
Rabago said about 850 fulltime personnel are now working in the revamped directorate, which is responsible for Deepwater and all other Coast Guard acquisition programs, including the Rescue 21 advanced communications system. Congress has authorized the hiring of another 100 personnel in 2010.
Competition for systems engineers, contracting specialists and other acquisition personnel is keen in the Washington, D.C. region. The service has had to beef up its own numbers as other agencies within the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department are also on hiring binges as they attempt to take control of oversight of their own programs.
“We’re getting to the point where we have a critical mass and we’re setting up the pyramid where there are promotion opportunities for people. It’s important for retention,” Rabago said. The directorate has also put all the programs under one roof after years of personnel being scattered about the region in different office buildings.
“We’re done reforming and we’re in the process of polishing and improving,” Rabago said.
As the Coast Guard claims progress, watchdogs are keeping a close eye on the program. The Government Accountability Office warned in a July report that the service “lags in applying its disciplined acquisition approach.”
The disciplined approach referred to in the report is the “Major Systems Acquisition Manual,” or MASM, which sets out clear guidelines as to what should be accomplished before each milestone decision is reached. Nine of the 13 programs investigated were behind on MASM compliance as of May, the report said. Not adhering to the process could result in schedule slips or cost overruns, the report added.
Throughout Deepwater’s tribulations, the Coast Guard has stuck with the 25-year, $24 billion budget and timeline. However, GAO warned that this may change.
“As the Coast Guard has developed its own cost benefit baselines for some assets, it has become apparent that some of these assets it is procuring will likely cost more that anticipated – up to $2.7 billion more based on information to date,” GAO said.
Rabago said that progress had been made in updating the documents. There are about 20 documents needed for each of the 20 or so programs, so it is a monumental task, he said. But he vowed that they would be current before deadlines for critical milestones are reached.
Of particular note to GAO was the Fast Response Cutter. Efforts to field these boats have given Deepwater its most notable problems. The first attempt to design a cutter using a composite hull ran into technological hurdles that could not be overcome and put the program behind by years. A stop-gap measure to convert existing 110-foot boats to 123-foot boats while a second version was under development also ran into problems when structural flaws were discovered. A Department of Homeland Security inspector general report also detailed allegations that ICGS failed to install safe and secure cables for the information technology system on the converted boats.
A whistleblower and former lead engineer for Lockheed Martin on the program, Michael DeKort, accused ICGS of fraud. A Justice Department investigation ensued, although after more than two years, no charges have been filed. DeKort has since sued Integrated Coast Guard Systems under the False Claims Act.
One of the Coast Guard’s first acts after taking over day-to-day management of the program from ICGS was to recompete the Fast Response Cutter as the Fast Response Cutter-B. After calling for designs based on proven boats already in production, it gave a contract to Bollinger Shipyards Inc.
GAO said this contract was awarded before requirement documents were produced. “This situation puts the Coast Guard at risk for cost overruns and schedule slips if it turns out that what it is buying does not meet its requirements,” GAO said.
Rabago said because of an urgent need to field the fast response cutters there is some “managed risk” in the process.
Bollinger had a boat to offer with a proven design, and general requirements were in place. Detailed requirements have now been produced and will be incorporated, he said. “It is a solid product that clearly identifies the requirements.”
A critical design review is scheduled for the end of September. If that goes well, construction could begin late this year, or early next year, Rabago said.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard’s planning directorate is taking a top to bottom look at the numbers and mix of ships, boats and aircraft that will be required to complete the Deepwater program. Its report is due at the end of September and will be presented to the public later in the fall, Rabago said.
GAO warned that “the Coast Guard’s aggressive schedule leaves little room for unforeseen problems.”
Rabago said: “We have a significant patrol boat power gap and it was a risk that we managed. We went into it with our eyes open,” he said.
Retired Rear Adm. Joe Carnevale, senior defense advisor to the Ship Builder’s Council of America, said one of the rules to designing and building a new ship is to have validated requirements in place.
“If you don’t have that view graph number one to jump off from and to gear everything to, you’re asking for complications later on,” he said.
“The government must know what it wants to buy, convey it to the [contractors] and then stick to it. And that’s really, really hard,” he said. Requirements change over the years, he noted.
Having done that, the Coast Guard has to allow the builders and suppliers sufficient time to properly design the ship and complete that before they start building, he said.
Overall, Carnevale gave the Coast Guard high marks for building up its acquisition work force in a relatively short amount of time. It is competing for talent with Naval Sea Systems Command. The Coast Guard has managed to hire some personnel away from the command by offering promotions, he said.
Rabago also pointed to the success of the National Security Cutter. The lead ship wrapped up its first operational patrol this summer. In the July incident, a maritime patrol aircraft spotted four suspicious speed boats near Guatemala. An MH-65 multi-mission cutter helicopter was launched to track the boats. The maritime patrol aircraft is one of the new Deepwater assets. The MH-65 is a legacy helicopter, but outfitted with new weapons, sensors and advanced communications.
Once the boat’s occupants were spotted tossing bails overboard, a marksman in the helicopter shot out the engines of two of the boats. Warning shots from a M240B 7.62 mm machine gun forced the other two to stop.
Small boats launched from the Bertholf intercepted the alleged smugglers, who were apprehended.
“For a major combatant ship of that complexity, to be able to sail on that first patrol less than a year after leaving the shipyard is a significant accomplishment,” Rabago said.
On the same patrol, the Bertholf communicated securely with a U.S. Navy vessel. Previously, the Coast Guard could not comply with Tempest anti-eavesdropping requirements. There had been delays in certifying Bertholf’s ability to securely communicate with the Defense Department, but those have all been resolved, Rabago said.
GAO is skeptical that the National Security Cutters will be all they are advertised to be.
A second report released in July that looked at NSC issues said delays in the delivery of the Bertholf and its sister ships will result in the “loss of thousands of days in NSC availability for conducting missions until 2018.” The high endurance cutters the NSCs are replacing are becoming increasingly unreliable, it said. They are spending more and more time docked undergoing repairs, it said.
Furthermore, the small boats and unmanned aircraft that are supposed to support the NSC are not yet ready.
Initial plans to use a tilt-wing unmanned aircraft to increase the cutter’s ability to patrol long distances had to be scrapped when the initial designs were not deemed airworthy. The Coast Guard still has not named a replacement aircraft. (See related story.)
New small boats that are launched from the cutter’s stern are also awaiting requirement documents. Older boats are being used as a stopgap.
ICGS originally planned for small boats “that were not realistic,” said GAO. The contractor wanted to include gun mounts, a top speed of 45 knots and a new communications suite. They “may have been achievable individually, but were not feasible when taken together,” the report said.
Doors that open and close from the stern to launch the boats are also not working properly. That issue is being resolved on the second ship, the Waesche, and a solution will probably be retrofitted on the Bertholf, Rabago said.
The report suggested that without the unmanned aircraft and the new small boats, it was hard to determine if the NSC could perform significantly better than the legacy cutters they are replacing.
“The NSC will be operating without planned assets that would enhance its capabilities over those of the” high endurance cutter, the report said.
Carnevale said glitches such as these are not unheard of for the first ship in a new class.
“I think they are overcoming all their lead ship problems. People forget that it doesn’t matter how they approach it, lead ships are hard. There’s nothing easy about them,” he said.
The ships have had their problems, but the aviation upgrades and the new fixed-wing aircraft have been relatively trouble free.
“And in our business, no news is good news,” Carnevale said.