Recent operational tests of the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter (NSC) show that the high-endurance vessel is “operationally effective and suitable,” but there are also “major deficiencies” with the ships, ranging from small boat operations to cyber security, a government auditor said on Thursday.

These deficiencies include the fact that the NSC’s small on-board boat isn’t suited for operations in sea state 5 as intended, and that testing has been deferred for key capabilities such as unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) use, cyber security and the handling of certain classified information, Michele Mackin, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), said in a statement. Follow-on testing is planned between fiscal years 2015 and ’17, she said in prepared remarks provided to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

National Security Cutter James. Photo: Huntington Ingalls Industries
National Security Cutter James. Photo: Huntington Ingalls Industries

The GAO is doing a more detailed review of the test, she told committee members at a hearing to review the Coast Guard’s acquisition programs.

The Coast Guard is acquiring eight NSCs from shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII]. The service recently awarded the company a $500 million contract for the eighth ship.

Mackin said any changes that have to be made to the NSC as a result of the tests will retrofitted on all eight ships.

Mackin also mentioned other problems facing the NSCs that are currently operating. For example, in warm climates, problems include “cooling system failures, excessive condensation forming puddles on the deck of the ship, and limited redundancy in its air conditioning system affecting use of information technology systems,” she stated. In cold conditions, she added, there is a “lack of heaters to keep oil and other fluids warm during operations.”

There have also been problems with the engines on some of the Coast Guard’s relatively short-range cutters, the Fast Response Cutter (FRC), Mackin said. She pointed out that the Navy’s operational testers determined two years ago that the FRC is operationally effective but not “suitable because a key engine part filed, which lowered the amount of time the ship was available for missions to an unacceptable level.”

Rear Adm. Bruce Baffer, assistant commandant for acquisitions for the Coast Guard, said there have been “some warranty issues” with the FRC’s engines but that the engine manufacturer “has been very forthright in fixing those things and taking care of those things, but we have had more issues than we’d expect on that particular engine.”

Bollinger Shipyards is currently the prime contractor for the first 32 of 58 FRCs to be built and delivered to the Coast Guard. Germany’s MTU provides the diesel engines for the FRC.

So far Bollinger has delivered 13 FRCs. A spokesman for the Coast Guard’s acquisition directorate told Defense Daily via email that the service has discovered several “latent defects” with the marine engines that Bollinger and MTU will correct “at no additional cost to the government.”

The issues include diesel engine exhaust diffuser assembly bolt failures that have been found on four of the vessels, and engine exhaust liner latent defects.

As originally planned for the FRC program to maintain competition and keep costs down, the Coast Guard has a new request for proposal to build the final 26 vessels. An award is expected next year, Baffer said.

The current FRCs are “very successful operational platforms,” Baffer said.

The Coast Guard’s top acquisition priority is its Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC), which is still in the early design phases. Three companies, Bollinger, General Dynamics [GD] and Eastern Shipbuilding Group each have preliminary and contract design contracts for the OPC, which is expected to downselect to a single contractor in 2016 for a detailed design phase leading to construction of the first nine to 11 vessels. After that, as with the FRC, the Coast Guard plans to recompete OPC construction to build out the requirement of 25 of the medium endurance cutters.

Baffer said the three contractors have all completed the preliminary design portion of their contracts and have moved on to the contract design, which includes things like proposed schedules, costs and other organizational components.

The Coast Guard has requested nearly $19 million in FY ’16 for OPC, which isn’t enough to begin the detailed design phase. There is a general provision in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) budget request to Congress that contains $70 million that would be transferred from elsewhere in the department to the service to begin this phase of the program. Baffer seemed confident that the funding would be there to complete OPC design with a single contractor although the several subcommittee members at the hearing, including Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), expressed concern.

If the current schedule holds, Baffer said the first OPC would be delivered in 2021. That date is years later than originally expected, which forced the Coast Guard into an expensive repair and overhaul of its legacy medium endurance cutters.

GAO’s Mackin said the service faces a “significant gap” between the projected delivery of the OPCs and the end of service life for the cutters it is replacing. She added that the Coast Guard is studying how to keep the legacy assets around longer but that no decision has been made.

Baffer said that the recently completed Mission Effectiveness Project for the medium-endurance cutters “bought us a few years” and an evaluation is underway to see about a further life-extension. However, “Our goal is not too spend any more money than we have too on the legacy fleet but to make sure we can cover the capability gaps until the OPCs replace them,” he said.

Under the current schedule the gap between when the OPCs begin delivering and when the legacy assets have to be retired is small and “manageable,” Baffer said. On the other hand, “The concern is if we don’t get started on OPC the gap could be very large and then it calls into question what is our offshore mission capability in the future,” he said.

The Coast Guard is currently redoing a Mission Need Statement that will help guide its future acquisition priorities. The last mission statement was done in 2005 and the new one will be out this summer.

The new Mission Need Statement will drive a new concept of operations, which will in turn help the service reevaluate its acquisition programs of record, including aviation, surface and other assets, Baffer said. Beginning later this year, the Coast Guard will conduct simulations of potential fleet mixes and measure the effectiveness of these various mixes and balance the cost of each, he said.