Eliminating Polar Security Cutter Funds In FY ’19 Will Delay Program, Coast Guard Official Warns

If House appropriators prevail in their markup over the summer to zero funding to construct the first new heavy polar icebreaker in 40 years, the program will be delayed and also call into question the nation’s commitment to recapitalizing its icebreaker fleet, the Coast Guard’s top acquisition official said on Thursday.

Existing funding for the Polar Security Cutter (PSC), the name given to the Coast Guard’s planned new heavy icebreaker fleet, will enable award of a detail design contract but not long-lead time materials, “which will impact our ability to deliver on time,” Rear Adm. Michael Haycock, assistant commandant for Acquisition, told a Senate panel.

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star. The cutter was built by the former Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company and was commissioned in 1977. (Photo: Coast Guard)

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star. The cutter was built by the former Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company and was commissioned in 1977. (Photo: Coast Guard)

So far the support from Congress for the PSC has been “phenomenal,” allowing progress toward recapitalizing the existing fleet to the point the program is “on the cusp of getting there,” Haycock told the Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee’s panel that oversees the Coast Guard.

In addition to schedule concerns, Haycock said that if Congress doesn’t fund construction of the lead ship in FY ’19, “that sends a signal to the industrial base that the nation isn’t serious about the Polar Security Cutter and the need for the Polar Security Cutter is greater now that it’s ever been.” He said the strong support for the PSC so far has generated “excitement” in industry for “building the ship and getting lessons learned.

Senate appropriators in June fully funded the Coast Guard’s $750 million request to construct the first PSC but the House appropriators provided monies, saying in a report accompanying their version of the Department of Homeland Security spending bill that they would work with the service to understand the funding needed in FY ’19 “to advance this program.” The two committees haven’t met to resolve their differences and DHS is operating under a continuing resolution that expires in early December. Fiscal year 2019 began on Oct. 1.

The Coast Guard is pursuing an aggressive schedule for the PSC program and plans to award the detailed design and construction contract for the first ship during FY ’19 to take delivery in 2023. The Coast Guard plans to acquire three heavy polar icebreakers to replace the one it currently has, the aging and maintenance-plagued Polar Star. The service also eventually plans to buy three new medium polar icebreakers to replace the one it has, the Healy, which is less urgent to replace.

In July, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) official leading an audit of the Coast Guard’s icebreaker program told a House panel that there is no margin for error in the schedule for the first PSC, saying it “doesn’t account for risks and delays.” Marie Mak, director of Contracting and National Security Acquisitions at GAO, said then that the Coast Guard is planning on 2.5 years to build the lead ship although several shipbuilders that have submitted design studies have estimated 3.5 years (Defense Daily, July 24).

Mak repeated her concerns about the schedule to the Senate subcommittee on Thursday.

Haycock admitted to the panel that the schedule for the first PSC is “tight” and it contains risks “but we need this now so we have to move fast to make it happen.”

To bridge a potential gap for when the Polar Star may not be operational and until at least the first new PSC is ready, the Coast Guard has studied leasing foreign icebreakers, which it has done several times previously, but Haycock said the service doesn’t favor this route because none meet their requirements. The Coast Guard wants a multi-mission heavy icebreaker that can operate in both the Arctic and Antarctic, which is where the Polar Star conducts an annual resupply mission every summer to the U.S. National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station.

The Coast Guard plans to extend the service life of the Polar Star until 2023 to bridge the gap tor when the second and third PSCs are scheduled for delivery, which is in 2025 and 2026 respectively. The Polar Star was commissioned in 1976 and requires substantial repairs, including while underway, to remain in service.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), the chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee for the Coast Guard, said it is a “disgrace” that Coast Guard men and women have to deploy on the Polar Star, saying that they do a “great job keeping it up to speed, Holy Cow, that ship is very, very, very old and I think it’s almost becoming unseaworthy.”

Ron O’Rourke, a specialist in Naval Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, said one way to mitigate schedule risks on the lead PSC is to begin construction as soon as the design is at “a high level of completion,” adding, “If you think there is going to be a gap, why delay the start of the ship as long as the ship is ready to begin.” He said this is the minimum that could be done to maintain schedule.

Asked by Sullivan to comment, Mak pointed out that U.S. shipbuilders haven’t built a new heavy icebreaker for decades, so they will be addressing significant requirements with the PSC. The GAO reported in September that they’ve recommended the Coast Guard take the time to plan the PSC acquisition using best practices and lessons from other major shipbuilding programs.

“When it comes to schedule, overall from an acquisition perspective, we’ve repeatedly found that compressed optimistic schedules is one of the main reasons why programs don’t take this knowledge-based acquisition approach and they end up causing a program to cost more in the long run because you’re doing a lot of concurrency and rework,” she said.

The current buffer for the PSC schedule is six months, Mak said, noting the Coast Guard hasn’t factored in potential bid protests, or certain work on the lead ship that is out of its control such as contractor delays.

Five companies have completed design studies for the Coast Guard toward the PSC. They are Bollinger Shipyards, General Dynamics [GD], a U.S. division of Italy’s Fincantieri, Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII], and VT Halter Marine, which is the U.S.-based shipbuilding division of Singapore’s ST Engineering.

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