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Vice Admiral Paul Thomas during Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee Hearing: Building the Fleet: Assessing the Department of Homeland Security’s Role in the United States Coast Guard’s Acquisitions Process, May 7, 2024.

Vice Admiral Paul Thomas during Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee Hearing: Building the Fleet: Assessing the Department of Homeland Security’s Role in the United States Coast Guard’s Acquisitions Process, May 7, 2024.

Coast Guard to Start Polar Cutter Construction Before Finalizing Design, Despite Recommendation

Malte Humpert
Total Views: 7084
May 8, 2024

By Malte Humpert (gCaptain) –

A congressional hearing about the state of the Coast Guard’s Polar Security Cutter program revealed ongoing design challenges and little certainty regarding timelines. 

The Coast Guard aims to begin construction on the first Polar Security Cutter before the end of the year, Vice Admiral Paul Thomas, Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, suggested before the committee.

When pressed by Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee Chairman, Rep. Carlos Gimenez, when exactly construction would start, Thomas replied: “December.” 

“I’ll hold you to that. I’ll see you back here in December, I’ll call you,” Gimenez replied.

Expert witnesses from the Government Accountability Office, Congressional Research Service, and Congressional Budget Office expressed repeated doubt about the Coast Guard’s indicated timeline.

An expert witness from the Congressional Budget Office, Mr. Labs, stated that “hope” was the best term he could come up with when describing the construction timeline.

Mr Gimenez asked: “You said that the Coast Guard is hoping to begin construction later this year. But didn’t they also hope to have the first icebreaker in operation this year?

“Yes, I did use the word ‘hoping’. It was the best term I could come up with given the troubled history of this program,” Mr Labs replied. A new CBO report expected for this summer will detail a 60 percent program cost overrun

GAO testimony and a new report revealed that functional design currently stands at only 67 percent completed. 

“The GAO recommends 100 percent functional design completion by the time you begin construction,” Shelby Oakley Director for Contracting and National Security Acquisitions at the GAO cautioned.

Confirming if he heard that correctly Gimenez asked. “And they are at 67 percent design completion after 5 years?”

“Yes, 67 percent to 100 percent is quite a lot of work. It’s a significant amount of work remaining before the end of the year,” Oakley confirmed. 

The Coast Guard’s construction timelines are subject to a “culture of optimism while ignoring historical reality,” the expert panel reiterated several times during the testimony. 

In fact, the Coast Guard’s progress in finalizing the design has been exceedingly slow. Based on the latest GAO figures, functional design completion increased by just 10 percent since the previous GAO update in March 2023.

Polar Security Cutter Program’s Progress toward Planned Functional and Transitional Design Maturity, September 2021 to March 2023. (Source: GAO)
Polar Security Cutter Program’s Progress toward Planned Functional and Transitional Design Maturity, September 2021 to March 2023. (Source: GAO)

Even based on the Coast Guard’s own target of 95 percent design completion before construction, significant work remains.

The Coast Guard has struggled to finalize a stable design, Oakley explained, and warned against moving forward with construction without a finalized design. “Such a decision would increase the program risk.” 

“The Coast Guard and the ship builder have underestimated how many design changes they would need to make to meet Coast Guard specs. And they made costly design errors, such as designing the lowest deck of the ship at the wrong height,” she further elaborated.

Vice Admiral Thomas confirmed that the Coast Guard now aims to begin construction without finalizing the design to the GAO’s recommendations. 

“We are currently building prototype modules that will become part of the ship. We will not be at the level of design maturity that the GAO would like to see when we do [begin construction],” Thomas stated.

Updated GAO timeline for the OPC and PSC programs. (Source: GAO)
Updated GAO timeline for the OPC and PSC programs. (Source: GAO)

A witness from the Congressional Research Service, Ron O’Rourke, a Specialist in Naval Affairs, said that delivery would “now be no earlier than the end of 2029.”

He suggested that one way to speed up the procurement would be to build the initial ship at the current builder Bollinger and at a later time introduce a second builder to construct additional PSCs in parallel. 

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