The Coast Guard requested $18.5 million for Fiscal Year 2016 for its top priority Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) program, but that’s not enough to move forward and recapitalize the ships that would replace medium endurance cutters, the Commandant on Tuesday told the House Appropriations Committee (HAC) homeland security panel.

“I’ve requested full funding; I’m short about $69 million to proceed forward with the final design of this (OPC),” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft told the HAC panel.

Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft Testifies Before House Appropriations Committee Homeland Security Panel March 24 Photo: USCG PO2 Patrick Kelley
Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft Testifies Before House Appropriations Committee Homeland Security Panel March 24
Photo: USCG PO2 Patrick Kelley

The funds would allow review and analysis of the current preliminary and contract design (PC&D) OPC contracts.

Bollinger, General Dynamics [GD] and Eastern Shipbuilding Group each have PC&D contracts, potentially worth close to $11 billion through construction. The Coast Guard expects to choose one contractor for construction (Defense Daily, Feb. 2).

The Coast Guard expects to complete the first phase of the PC&D effort in FY ’16 and the budget request includes a general provision allowing a transfer to the OPC project if the program is ready to award the next phase in FY ’16.

Zukunft said he has great support for the program within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but, he “cannot afford to let this date lapse. I need relief ships for 50-year-old ships today that will be 55-year-old ships by the time their relief arrives.”

The Coast Guard wants a total of 25 OPC.

HAC defense panel chairman John Carter (R-Texas) said he was still “alarmed” by the continued decrease in discretionary funding. “You have a fleet of vessels that are past their useful life and replacements are years away.”

Ranking Member Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) said the committee “has long been concerned that these budgets for the Coast Guard have been insufficient for realistically addressing your mission needs.”

The FY ’16 OPC request is “substantially” below the planned spending level in the FY 2015 Capital Investment Plan, the most recent plan members have, she said.

The Coast Guard looks on OPC affordability and requirements through an executive steering committee and a newly created joint requirements council, the Commandant said.

“We have stripped down every line item of the Offshore Patrol Cutter right down to how many drinking fountains will be on this ship, that level of detail, to make sure that what we produce is an affordable platform,” Zukunft said. “And by holding stable requirements, fixed price contracting, I am convinced that our shipbuilders will be able to produce an affordable Offshore Patrol Cutter for our nation.”

The FY ’16 bill language proposes unlimited authority to transfer funding to the Coast Guard for the OPC project to meet the OPC timelines if the program shortfall is not made up.

“That transfer authority would be imperative for us to be able to have full funding in ’16 to be able to move this project forward,” he said. “It would be critical to meet the timelines short of an additional appropriation.”

Full committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) also expressed concern about decreased funds, saying, “At this rate we will not see an OPC until 2021 and I’m not sure we can afford delays when the average age of the two classes of medium endurance cutters it’s intended to replace is 46 years.”

The OPC is critical for the Coast Guard, Zukunft said. “The Offshore Patrol Cutter will provide affordable, persistent and off shore presence needed to meet national objectives well into the 21st century.”

Tight budgets also mean there are no funds to recapitalize the ice breaking fleet at a time when the arctic is becoming more important to commerce, ecotourism and other human activity. Today, Coast Guard icebreakers have no capacity to self-rescue if they become stuck in the ice or deal with injuries. On duty today is the reactivated USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) built by Lockheed Martin [LMT] and commissioned in 1976. Also on duty is the USCGC Healy (WAGB-20), constructed by Avondale Industries [HII] and commissioned in 1999.

It’s an “appalling situation,” Rogers said, wondering if the Coast Guard could lease commercial icebreakers. New ones could potentially cost “north of a billion.”

Zukunft said, “we’ve put every option on the table,” from reactivating a ship, to building new ones to leasing, but leasing must be paid up front, and could be very expensive. “There’s no money for me to even address the arctic.”

The Coast Guard’s concern, he said, is in the ability to recapitalize, as “I’ve been through 21 Continuing Resolutions in the past four years,” plus acquisition variances of 30 percent to 40 percent over three to four years.

“Going forward, the key to our future op success is stable and predictable funding,” Zununft said.