By Calvin Biesecker

The Coast Guard’s Fast Response Cutter (FRC) earlier this month successfully cleared its Critical Design Review (CDR), paving the way for a meeting next week with a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) panel to decide if the service can begin low-rate production of the vessels, a program official said yesterday.

Bollinger Shipyards, the Coast Guard’s contractor for the Sentinel-class FRC, "has done an exceptional job" maturing the design of the vessel, Ian Grunther, the service’s deputy project manager for Patrol Boats, told Defense Daily in an interview.

The Coast Guard will meet with the DHS Acquisition Review Board (ARB) either next Wednesday or Friday "and it was essential that we got through the Critical Design Review and that the Coast Guard technical authorities were comfortable with the maturity of the design, which they are," Grunther said. The FRC program must still get a "thumbs up" from the Coast Guard’s acquisition executive in a meeting next Tuesday before heading to the ARB, he added.

Grunther said that the Coast Guard’s technical authorities have been part of the technical interchange meetings on the program going back to the preliminary design review, providing further confidence that the FRC design is sound.

At the upcoming ARB meeting, the Coast Guard will be seeking permission to acquire up to 15 of the 154-foot FRCs for the low-rate initial production (LRIP) buy. If the ARB promptly gives the nod to proceed, the Coast Guard expects in December to award a contract option of around $141 million to Bollinger for three boats, Grunther said.

The original plan had been to get the three boats under contract by the end of FY ’09 in September but a three-month delay in the program stemming from a protest by a losing bidder in September 2008 set back FRC by about 100 days.

Bollinger already has the funding for the first vessel and is expected to start construction this week, Grunther said. The first boat is slated for delivery to the Coast Guard in the third quarter of FY ’11.

Congress appropriated $243 million for four more FRC’s in FY ’10. While that money will be available to go under contract once the ARB gives the nod for LRIP, Grunther said there isn’t a hurry to award that contract yet. First, the Coast Guard will want to see how Bollinger completes its design work and then transitions to production with the first four vessels, he said.

The ARB, which is chaired by the deputy secretary of Homeland Security when major programs are being reviewed, is the ultimate acquisition decision making authority within DHS. A year ago, DHS issued an acquisition directive called 102-01 that significantly strengthened what had been weak central oversight of procurement efforts throughout the department. That directive codified an entire milestone and review process for DHS acquisition programs to pass through from concept all the way to full-rate production and life- cycle management.

As part of the ARB process, DHS has an Acquisition Review Team (ART) that maintains a degree of oversight of programs as they progress, providing information to key department officials and feedback to program officials. The ART has reviewed all the documentation such as the Test and Evaluation Master Plan and Integrated Logistics Support, so they are well informed about the FRC’s status, Grunther said.

Last Friday, the ART provided a positive "out brief" regarding their take on the FRC, Grunther said.

"We feel confident going into the ARB," he said.

Regarding the design of the FRC, Grunther said that Bollinger has constructed a three-dimensional rendering that has provided a "minute level of detail" about the vessel, including whether coat hangers on the wall would interfere with the opening of a door. "The fidelity in that design was definitely a very strong confidence builder for everybody that attended" the CDR last week, he said.

The Coast Guard plans to buy between 24 and 34 FRC’s for a potential program cost of $1.5 billion. The FRC typically performs missions along the nation’s littorals, including ports, waterways and coastal security missions.