BREAKING: Coast Guard's New Icebreaker at Risk of Further Delays

By Allyson Park
Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star

Coast Guard photo

The Coast Guard’s troubled icebreaker program has a lot of design work to complete before starting construction in 2024, according to a government watchdog.

The Coast Guard in 2016 initiated the Polar Security Cutter program, partnering with the Navy to procure three heavy polar icebreakers to address the nation's requirements in the Arctic and Antarctic. The Coast Guard plans to invest “at least $11.6 billion for acquisition, operations, and maintenance of these cutters,” the Government Accountability Office said in a July 27 report, "Coast Guard Acquisitions: Polar Security Cutter Needs to Stabilize Design Before Starting Construction and Improve Oversight."

The design of the Polar Security Cutter is not yet fully complete, leading to an “extended design phase and [contributing] to a three-year schedule delay in the shipyard,” according to the report.

The services planned for the design to be fully mature and complete by March 2021, but officials now say that the earliest they expect the design “to be mature enough for the program to conduct the production readiness reviews,” is March 2024, when construction is due to begin.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is down to two aging icebreakers — the 47-year-old Polar Star, heavy enough to break up the ice floes of Antarctica, and the 26-year-old medium icebreaker Healy, which is used for Arctic operations and research. The need for new icebreakers in recent years has become more acute in the Arctic as climate change and receding ice has opened up sea lanes and competition with nations such as Russia and China.  

Four major factors have impacted the delay: U.S. designers and shipbuilders  lack experience with designing and building polar icebreakers; the design is incredibly complex and complicated; the current design has been changed significantly from the original; and the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down design and manufacturing.

VT Halter Marine was the original contractor until Bollinger Shipyards acquired the company in November 2022. Bollinger executives told GAO investigators the previous management made errors that resulted in the need to do redesign work. 

However, the Polar Security Cutter is not the first Coast Guard program to run into a myriad of problems and design delays of late. The GAO found similar issues with the Offshore Patrol Cutter. A June 20 report said the $12 billion program to acquire 25 new cutters also started construction before its design was mature, resulting in costly rework and schedule delays.

According to GAO, the Coast Guard must stabilize the Polar Security Cutter design and improve scheduling oversight before moving onto the construction phase.

“It is unclear if the program will be able to achieve necessary gains in design before lead ship construction begins,” the report stated, “This raises concerns as to whether construction will begin before the design is mature, risking further delays and costly rework.”

The GAO recommended for the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security ensure that the design for the icebreaker is mature, “meaning at least the functional design is complete, including routing of major distributive systems that affect multiple zones of the ship, prior to authorizing lead cutter construction beyond the previously approved eight prototype units,” the report stated.

DHS should also help the Coast Guard add a “delivery date for the third PSC to the acquisition program baseline as soon as practical.”

In a response included in the report, DHS concurred with both these recommendations. “The department’s goal for design maturity is consistent with this recommendation to complete functional design, including routing of major portions of major distributive systems that affect multiple zones of the ship prior to authorizing construction of the first ship,” the memo stated.


Topics: Procurement, Research and Development, Acquisition

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