Coast Guard Trying to Stay the Course on its Shipbuilding Plans During Tough Fiscal Times

By Valerie Insinna

The Coast Guard is in the middle of a 25-year effort to replace its fleets of aging ships, and has so far managed to obtain most of the funding it needs, said Adm. Robert J. Papp, commandant of the Coast Guard.

“Those years at sea taught me a lot of lessons. I don’t control the weather, you adapt to the weather … I don’t make the rules in terms of budgetary process. I take the money that is eventually appropriated to me that comes from the scarce resources of the people of the United States, and we use it to best effect,” Papp said in a speech at a Naval Surface Association conference.

One potential hiccup is funding for its final two National Security Cutters. The largest of the deep ocean-going vessels has funding and contracts are in place to build the fourth, fifth and sixth ships. The Hamilton, the fourth in the series, is expected to be christened this fall. Papp anticipated that a contract will be awarded for the sixth National Security Cutter about the same time.

There is no funding appropriated so far for the seventh and eighth ships.

Congress approved bills for fiscal year 2013 for long lead money for the final two ships, “so we’re pretty pleased about that, and we’ll just have to continue our negotiations on the ‘14 budget and the ‘15 budget. I hope we get construction for number seven and number eight in those two budgets and then keep moving forward,” Papp said.

The second most vulnerable program is the Offshore Patrol Cutter, which is still in the early stages of development.

The Coast Guard is currently going through the numerous proposals it received.

The Offshore Patrol Cutter is currently the Coast Guard’s highest priority program, Papp said. They will replace the service’s already antiquated 210- and 270-foot medium endurance cutters. They are intended to fill the gap between the deepwater National Security Cutters and the smaller boats that patrol near shore.

“There seems to be significant interest out there to build 25 ships, and we’re very pleased about that. I think people are thinking out of the box. They’re looking at new designs. We need to think out of the box as well as we go forward, because … this ship is going to be very, very important to us.”

If the ship’s development is slowed down because of budget cuts, it could create serious capability gaps, Papp has said. The two ships it is designed to replace frequently break down because of their age.

The Fast Response Cutter program, meanwhile, is more stable, he said. Nine are in production that will be delivered over the next two years, and five more are under contract for a total of 18 that have received funding.

“I think this is going to be on autopilot. It’s very popular with Congress, the administration, [the Office of Management and Budget] and the Coast Guard. So I expect this to keep pressing forward,” Papp said.

The current plan is to have 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters replace about 30 medium endurance cutters, and the eight National Security Cutters replace 12 of the 378-foot Hamilton-class high endurance cutters. Fifty-eight Fast Response Cutters will replace 42 island-class patrol boats, Papp said.

 The commandant was also pleased about the progress the service has made taking its small number of icebreakers out of mothballs. The Coast Guard had three of the ships that are needed in the Arctic, which is growing in strategic importance as the northern icecap recedes.

Papp found only one working icebreaker in service when he was named commandant in 2010. He has since put one of them back in service. Polar Star was refurbished and was undergoing sea trials in January. It has now “regained its status as the most powerful conventionally powered icebreaker in the world,” Papp said.

“Our bridging strategy until we get a new icebreaker was to bring Polar Star back in service to give us a heavy icebreaker with at least 10 years of life left in her, and I think Polar Star will have that,” he said.

“The next step will be to start talking about an additional polar icebreaker replacement when Polar Star gets decommissioned,” he said.

With two icebreakers now in service, Papp said the Coast Guard can “minimally” meet its requirements in the Arctic.

“Yeah, we’re struggling, but the entire country is struggling right now. Shipbuilding is expensive, but this is the time to fortify ourselves, to increase our commitment, to work hard to keep our focus, to stay the course, and we’re doing that, and I’m confident we’re going to get the replacement ships built,” the commandant said.

Photo Credit: Coast Guard

Topics: Homeland Security, Deepwater, MaritimePort Security, Shipbuilding

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