SNA NEWS: Coast Guard Commandant Expresses Confidence in Delayed Cutter Programs

By Sean Carberry
Offshore Patrol Cutter USCGC Argus

Eastern Shipbuilding photo

ARLINGTON, Virginia — The Coast Guard has been working for years to design and build new ships to replace aging cutters and icebreakers, and last year a government watchdog issued scathing criticisms of the programs that are behind schedule and over budget. However, the Coast Guard’s commandant said the service stands behind the programs.

The Coast Guard launched its first of class Offshore Patrol Cutter USCGC Argus in October, however, due to delays in the cutter program, the service has been forced to embark on a costly renovation of some of its medium endurance cutters to extend their service lives, Adm. Linda Fagan said at the Surface Navy Association’s national symposium Jan. 10.

“The Offshore Patrol Cutters will be replacing the 210-foot cutters, and many of these are 50 to 55 years old and … we're accelerating decommissioning on a handful of them because of their overall material condition,” she said, adding that some of the ships have experienced fires and other serious maintenance needs.

“These ships are old, and it's time, and we can't get OPC into the fight quick enough,” she said. “We're in the process with the 270-foot cutters of a service life extension, we’re extending them another 10 or 15 years to keep them operating and engaged, but OPC — particularly in the kind of partner and ally capacity work as you look across the Atlantic basin, Western Hemisphere work, Africa or European partners … and our own national security interest in our littorals and approaches — the OPC is going to be absolutely essential to that.”

While the Argus launched in October, it will not be commissioned “for another year or so,” Fagan said, which would put it three years behind schedule according to a June 2023 Government Accountability Report, “Coast Guard Acquisitions: Offshore Patrol Cutter Program Needs to Mature Technology and Design.”

The GAO also criticized the Polar Security Cutter program in a July 2023 report, “Coast Guard Acquisitions: Polar Security Cutter Needs to Stabilize Design Before Starting Construction and Improve Schedule Oversight.” National Defense previously reported the icebreaker’s design was supposed to be fully mature and complete by March 2021, but that has been pushed back to at least March 2024.

Fagan said fielding a Polar Security Cutter is an “absolute top priority” for the Coast Guard. “We're on budget; we're on contract for Polar Security Cutter,” which will be built by Bollinger Shipyards in Mississippi, she said. “I look forward to seeing that ship beginning to be constructed and then eventually fielded in full operation. … And while there is much work to do still in front of us, we should be excited about where we are, is that that ship will soon begin to take shape.”

“We need a heavy icebreaker now,” Fagan continued. “I'm focused on fielding the Polar Security Cutter — the heavy icebreakers — getting that first one well into construction with some predictability around when that ship will come into full operating capacity, and we're working hard with the yard and with the Navy and the program office to bring some better certainty and clarity around that. As a nation, we need that icebreaking capacity.”

The shipbuilding requirements process is not fast, “the build is not fast. But we are 100 percent committed to getting that first Polar Security Cutter built and fielded,” she said. “And I am 100 percent confident this design is going to be a very complex ship to build. The Offshore Patrol Cutter Argus … that ship came together in 17 different units. The Polar Security Cutter is going to be at least 85. It just tells you how dense that ship will be and complex as we put it together.”

In the meantime, the Coast Guard is continuing to operate the 48-year-old Polar Star heavy icebreaker and the 25-year-old medium icebreaker Healy. The service is also considering commercially available icebreaking options to meet current needs, she added.

While she is focused on getting the modern ships constructed and launched, Fagan said her main priority is people, especially given recent recruiting struggles.

“It doesn't matter that we're fielding a new Polar Security Cutter or that we've continued to field new National Security Cutters … [there’s] a lot to be excited about on the acquisition front with new assets,” she said. “But they are truly just pieces of steel but for the crew that needs to operate them. And so, people are absolutely front and center. If we get it right for our people, the assets and the missions and the work will come and will be successful. But focusing on people is essential to all of our organizations.”

The people and the platforms will need to be flexible to address current and future threats and challenges, she noted. “I think about the Coast Guard we're operating today — everything from ships that are 50-plus years old, to brand-new ships that we're just bringing into commission now,” such as the Argus.

“What will Argus be doing? What will the risk environment and operating environment look like for Argus in 50 years? None of us have the crystal ball that tells us exactly what that's going to look like,” she said. “But you can reasonably anticipate that the risk will continue to evolve … at a rapid pace.

That requires building foundations, having teams with the “expertise, knowledge and skills to flex into that new operating environment,” she continued. Then, the service needs to be thinking about “what is that next system, next weapon system, next piece of technology, next communication system that will serve as a key enabler as those teams go out and conduct operations, and what that environment looks like in the future?

“And so, we're investing in today's Coast Guard and operating the Coast Guard today, but it's always with an eye towards what will the future bring in ensuring that we've still got the flexibility to pivot and shift into tomorrow's challenge,” she said.


Topics: Maritime Security

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