With a proposed fleet of 25 ships, and an expected budget of $8 billion, the Coast Guard’s Offshore Patrol Cutter is drawing intense interest from both shipbuilders and budget watchers on Capitol Hill.
Work on the OPC has not yet begun in earnest, but Coast Guard acquisition officials are indicating that it will be a ship for its times. And these are times of fiscal restraint.
“For the OPC, we have spent a great deal of time looking at cost and affordability,” Rear Adm. John Korn, chief of Coast Guard acquisitions, said at the service’s innovation expo in Tampa, Fla.
Indeed, saving money in a time of expected shrinking federal budgets is already having an impact on the design of the ship even though there has not been a request for proposals.
The Coast Guard asked industry for its ideas about the ship based on preliminary requirements for what the Coast Guard would like to see. It asked potential contract bidders not only what they could provide, but what they could do in terms of reducing operational and design costs.
The acquisitions office is about 75 percent through reviewing the information, Korn said.
Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., commandant on the Coast Guard, testified on Capitol Hill earlier in the month that the service is “employing a very deliberate process” to ensure that it can deliver a ship that is both affordable and meets all the operational requirements.
Capt. Lisa Festa, program manager for surface acquisition projects, declined to say exactly when a request for proposals would be released. She would only say that it would not be as long as two years. There is money in the 2012 fiscal year budget to award preliminary contract design awards, she said.
“It’s going to be difficult to meet that date,” she said. “We still have a number of things to work out and vet throughout the building and throughout the Department [of Homeland Security] before we release the RFP.”
Korn said: “We are dedicated to meeting those minimum requirements. We think we can get within an affordable range using commercial practices” rather than methods used to build combatant ships. Industry came through with several ideas to reduce costs, he added.
The Coast Guard has already made some budget-based decisions as far as what the ship will not feature. Gas turbine engines and a system to launch small boats from the stern are two ideas that have already been rejected, he said.
The service has touted the launching of small tactical boats from the back of its largest ship, the new National Security Cutters, as a success story. It is far easier, faster and safer to dispatch a small boat from the stern than to lower one over the side. The new 154-foot Fast Response Cutters also have this capability.
Why isn’t that in the plans for the OPC, which will be the second largest ship in the Coast Guard? one vendor asked at the conference.
It all boiled down to affordability, Festa said. There was concern about adding length and more structure to the ship. It was a cost tradeoff, she said.
There will also be some kind of diesel or electric engines, or combinations of the two, rather than costly gas turbine engines, Korn confirmed.
The acquisition directorate is looking at all the ideas industry proposed, especially “any little thing” that could reduce costs, he said. That includes proposals where the Coast Guard could gain great benefits without having to spend large sums.
The Coast Guard also wants to leverage proven Coast Guard and Navy programs in order to save funding, he added.
Meanwhile, the surface acquisition program signed $700 million worth of contracts in September alone, for a total of more than $1.2 billion in 2011, Festa said.
“It’s proof that we’re not sitting on money. That we are executing and buying new assets for the Coast Guard,” she said.
There are questions as to whether the Coast Guard will be able to build both the National Security Cutters while trying to ramp up work on the Offshore Patrol Cutter. Korn said the bulk of the OPC acquisition funding won’t be needed until work is finished on the fleet of eight NSCs.
However, these large-ticket programs are easy targets for budget cutters on Capitol Hill, pundits have warned.
“We are going to release a draft RFP that takes into account those suggestions to reduce costs, and we think we can get an affordable cutter … within any likely budgets that we are looking at,” Korn said.