The Coast Guard is updating its schedule for its new heavy polar icebreaker after assessing key technologies for the program, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) official said on Wednesday.
Delivery of the first Polar Security Cutter (PSC) is currently scheduled for May 2024, two months later than planned in the program’s approved baseline, Marie Mak, director for Contracting and National Security Acquisitions at GAO, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security.
Previous GAO reports said the Coast Guard did not have a solid business case for the PSC and in response the Coast Guard said it would take the steps necessary before proceeding, she told the panel in her opening remarks.
“For example, the program assessed its key technologies and is planning to revise its schedule to be more realistic,” Mak said. “The program is still early in its life-cycle. A key milestone and test of the Coast Guard’s commitment to a sound business case will be the start of construction on the lead ship, which is slated to begin next year.”
The Coast Guard in April 2019 awarded VT Halter Marine a potential $1.9 billion contract for the detailed design and construction for up to three PSCs, with delivery of the first heavy icebreaker planned by June 2024. The contract includes incentives for the contractor to deliver the ship in late 2023, which is when the Coast Guard originally wanted the first ship by.
In her written statement for the subcommittee, Mak stated that the Coast Guard is “tracking additional schedule risks for the program,” which will be addressed “when they update the program’s schedule by the end of March 2020.”
The preliminary design review for the PSC is scheduled for the first quarter of 2020 and GAO in a report in December 2019 on Department of Homeland Security acquisition programs said the review was due to be held in January 2020. Preliminary design reviews are used in defense acquisition programs to allow the government to assess the contractor’s design and ensure that it will meet requirements within the planned budget and schedule.
A spokesman for the Coast Guard’s acquisition directorate told Defense Daily that the PSC program is still tracking to the 2024 delivery date for the first ship.
“The Polar Security Cutter acquisition program is currently in the detail design phase,” the spokesman said in an email response to questions. “During this phase, the program will conduct an integrated baseline review with the contractor to gain better insight on PSC schedule and construction milestones. This activity is a standard program management practice and supports GAO’s recommendations.”
The December GAO report cites a technology readiness assessment of the PSC program by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate that determined the program has three critical technologies mature or close to maturity. The mature technologies include azimuthing propulsors, which are propellers in pods that can rotate horizontally and make a rudder unnecessary, and the integrated electric propulsion system.
The hull form is the only critical technology deemed short of maturity, GAO says.
The Coast Guard plans to use the preliminary design review to assess these technologies, GAO says.
Congress in late 2019 appropriated $100 million for long-lead materials for a second PSC. The Trump administration had requested $35 million to keep the program office while design of the first ship was underway.
The Coast Guard has a requirement for six polar icebreakers, at least three of them heavy. The service currently operates one heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is 44 years old and will undergo a service life extension to keep the ship operating through the mid-2020s.
The Coast Guard also has one medium polar icebreaker, the Healy, which is used for scientific missions. The Healy was commissioned in 1999.
Having at least three PSCs will give the Coast Guard the ability to maintain a nearly year-round presence in the Arctic if it needs to. With the climate changing and Arctic ice receding to open access to more areas of the region, there is an ongoing increase in human and commercial activity.
The U.S. also wants to have a more sustained presence in the Arctic to demonstrate leadership in the region and maintain influence, particularly as Russia builds its presence in the region and China increasingly shows interest there as well.