The Coast Guard on Thursday evening said it has awarded shipbuilder Austal USA a potential $3.3 billion contract for the detailed design and construction under Stage 2 of the offshore patrol cutter (OPC) program, allowing for up to 11 ships to be acquired.

The initial award is valued at $208.3 million and covers detail design and long-lead material funding for the fifth OPC, which will be the first built by Alabama-based Austal USA.

The first four OPCs are being built by Eastern Shipbuilding Group (ESG) under a competitive contract the Florida-based company won in September 2016. The company originally was going to the build the first 11 ships but after its shipyard was severely damaged in October 2018 by Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, ESG sought cost and schedule relief.

The Department of Homeland Security in October 2019 granted the relief, slipping delivery of the first 360-foot ship by one year until 2022, but also decided to reopen the program to competition beginning with the fifth vessel. The department had planned to recompete the OPC program as ESG was completing the original contract for 11 vessels but the decision to conduct a new competition sooner was due to uncertainties related to the impacts of the storm on the company’s facilities and its ability ramp up production to two ships per year beginning with the fourth and fifth cutters.

In March 2020, the Coast Guard awarded Phase 2 OPC design study contracts to eight companies, including ESG, Bollinger Shipyards, Austal USA, General Dynamics [GD], Fincantieri Marinette Marine, HII [HII], Philly Shipyard, and Halter Marine. HII is building the 420-foot high-endurance National Security Cutters for the Coast Guard, Bollinger the 154-foot coastal security Fast Response Cutters, and Halter Marine is under contract for the heavy Polar Security Cutters.

The Coast Guard plans to acquire 25 OPCs to replace its aging fleet of 270-foot and 210-foot medium endurance cutters, which are aging and costly to maintain. The OPC and a new heavy polar icebreaker program are the service’s top acquisition priorities.

The OPC’s to be built by Austal will have commonality with the ships built by ESG in the areas of hull and propulsion systems. The Coast Guard said the Stage 2 effort had flexibility for new design elements that improve life-cycle costs, production, operational efficiency and performance.