The Coast Guard’s plans to acquire and take delivery of a new heavy polar icebreaker by 2023 are “highly optimistic” and not based on realistic schedule targets, a government auditor said on Tuesday.

The Coast Guard’s continued focus on short-term acquisition planning means it “has not established a sound acquisition business case” for the new icebreaker, Marie Mak, director of Contracting and National Security Acquisitions at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), told a House panel. “For shipbuilding programs to be successful, a sound business case is essential, which means, attaining critical levels of knowledge at key points in the process before significant investments are made.

The delivery date for the new icebreaker was set based on the expected end of life for the Coast Guard’s one operational heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, Mak told the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard. In her written statement, she said the schedule doesn’t account for risks and delays.

Coast Guard heavy polar icebreaker Polar Star (foreground) shown cutting a channel in the Ross Sea as part of Operation Deep Freeze 2017. Photo: Chief Petty Officer David Mosley
Coast Guard heavy polar icebreaker Polar Star (foreground) shown cutting a channel in the Ross Sea as part of Operation Deep Freeze 2017. Photo: Chief Petty Officer David Mosley

“Design study information provided by several shipbuilders estimated that it could take up to 3.5 years to build the lead icebreaker, but the Coast Guard is planning for a more optimistic estimate of 2.5 years for the delivery date,” she stated.

The Coast Guard’s schedule planning provides a six-month buffer from the target delivery date until the latest acceptable delivery date in March 2024, Mak said. A GAO analysis of 12 Navy and Coast Guard shipbuilding programs over the past 10 years has shown delays in deliveries of the lead ship between nine and 75 months for all but one of the programs, she said.

“We have found in our past shipbuilding work that delays have resulted from a number of issues, including redesign work to address discoveries during pre-delivery testing, and key system integration problems, and design quality issues among others,” Mak stated. “However, Coast Guard officials told us such risk are not accounted for in the heavy polar icebreaker schedule.”

A GAO report on the heavy polar icebreaker program is expected to be released this summer.

In fiscal year 2019, the Coast Guard plans to award a contract for the detailed design and construction of the first of up to three new heavy polar icebreakers. The Coast Guard’s budget request for FY ’19 contains $750 million for the first vessel.

Senate appropriators have agreed to the request but a preliminary markup by the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee cuts the funding. The House Appropriations Committee will mark up the spending bill on Wednesday morning.

Mak said that there is enough funding from prior bills to award the detailed design contract but not construction of the lead ship without fully funding the FY ’19 request.

The Polar Star was commissioned in 1976 and is expected to reach the end of its service life between 2020 and 2023. The Coast Guard last week issued a Request for Information that sketches out rough plans for a service life extension project (SLEP) for the 399-foot vessel that would include work during regular maintenance periods over four years. If the phased work is completed in 2024, the life of the ship will extend to 2028.

Mak warned the panel that the regular maintenance periods for the Polar Star are taking longer than usual and that the Coast Guard hasn’t shown how it will complete the forthcoming SLEP work during the “already extended maintenance timeframes and continue meeting its annual Antarctica mission.”

Every winter, the Polar Star helps in the annual delivery of supplies to the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station in Antarctica. If the ship founders, the Coast Guard has no organic rescue capability for the vessel.

In addition to the three planned heavy icebreakers—the second and third are planned for deliveries in 2025 and 2026—the Coast Guard has a need for three new medium polar icebreakers. The service currently has one medium icebreaker, the Healy, which is expected to reach its end of life in 2029.

Congress previously appropriated $300 million in the Navy’s budget toward a polar icebreaker, which the Coast Guard views as a down payment on the second vessel. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees have authorized six new icebreakers.

The conference report that accompanies the FY ’19 National Defense Authorization Act says that the Department of Homeland Security’s FY ’19 through FY ’23 Future Years Homeland Security Program contains $1.8 billion for fully funding three icebreakers and that additional Defense Department funds aren’t required “to procure icebreakers for the foreseeable future.”

Mak said the Coast Guard hasn’t begun its acquisition planning for the new medium icebreakers.

In conjunction with Tuesday’s hearing on Coast Guard acquisition plans and mission needs, the GAO also released a report on the service’s long-term management challenges of its acquisitions. The report says the service continues to largely rely on annual budget planning despite the fact that the bow wave of acquisition needs exceeds the typical budgets the service receives each year.

DHS concurred with a GAO recommendation that the Coast Guard’s annual five-year Capital Investment Plan show how trade-offs are made between acquisition programs when investments are planned. The department disagreed with a recommendation to have the Coast Guard’s Executive Oversight Council review the long-term affordability of the acquisition efforts, saying it is outside the scope of the council’s charter. DHS said it would update the charter to “meet the spirit of this recommendation.”