The Coast Guard this week expects to award Eastern Shipbuilding Group a contract to begin production of the third Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) and long-lead time materials for the fourth vessel, and construction of the first ship remains on track for delivery in late 2022, Adm. Karl Schultz, the service’s commandant, told a congressional panel on Wednesday.
Construction of the first OPC, the Argus, is more than 40 percent complete and work on the second ship, the Chase, is in the “low teen digits,” Schultz told the House Appropriations Homeland Security subcommittee.
Congress appropriated $546 million in fiscal year 2021 for the OPC program, which is replacing the Coast Guard’s aging legacy 210-foot and 270-foot medium cutters. Schultz said that in the past two years, the service has lost close to 500 annual patrol days with its medium-endurance cutters due to unplanned maintenance and repairs.
The Coast Guard is in the process of recompeting the OPC after the fourth vessel. The service plans to acquire 25 of the ships.
Schultz also that steel is expected to be cut in the coming months on the Coast Guard’s first new heavy icebreaker, the Polar Security Cutter. In January, Schultz had said that shipbuilder VT Halter Marine was expected to cut steel early this year on the ship.
So far, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Schultz said that schedules are holding for all of the Coast Guard’s shipbuilding programs.
The commandant also said that currently six of the service’s 98 MH-65 Dolphin short-range helicopters aren’t flying due to a lack of spare parts and another four are expected to be out of service by the end of June for same reason. Airbus, the manufacturer of the MH-65s, stopped producing the aircraft in 2018 and the Coast Guard is finding it hard to get the parts to keep the aircraft flying, he said.
The MH-65s are flying at 70 percent of programmed hours because of the parts shortage, Schultz said.
With the annual hurricane season fast approaching in the U.S., Schultz said “this is the time of year…we really want every available asset ready in the barn or out doing other missions and ready for the fight on that front.”
Last month, during the annual State of the Coast Guard address, Schultz said the Coast Guard is looking at drawing down its MH-65 fleet in favor of expanding its MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters fleet. He told the appropriators on Wednesday that while service life extensions to both programs are “imperative, the Coast Guard must immediately begin transitioning towards a single airframe rotary-wing fleet comprised of MH-60 helicopters.”
The life extensions will allow the Coast Guard to fly its MH-65s into the mid-2030s but the “rapidly declining availability” of parts means readiness of the aircraft will be jeopardized before then, he said.
The Coast Guard has 48 Jayhawks, which are based on the Army’s ubiquitous Blackhawk helicopter and is flown by the U.S. Navy and international militaries as well. Schultz said variants of the H-60 are also rapidly being used in the civilian sector, which means the supply chain for the aircraft will remain viable beyond 2040.
The H-60 is made by Lockheed Martin’s [LMT] Sikorsky unit.