In a surprise, the congressional appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018 includes funding for two Coast Guard National Security Cutters (NSC), moving the program within one vessel of a one-for-one replacement of legacy high endurance cutters.

The FY ’18 Omnibus Appropriations Bill contains $1.2 billion for the NSC program to complete the acquisition of the 10th vessel and fund long-lead materials and construction of the 11th ship. This is the most funding the program has ever received and is roughly equal to some of the Coast Guard’s past annual acquisition budgets.

Coast Guard National Security Cutter James (WMSL 754). Photo: Coast Guard
Coast Guard National Security Cutter James (WMSL 754). Photo: Coast Guard

The bill provides $2.7 billion overall for the Coast Guard’s procurement account, well above the $2 billion floor that Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft maintains is necessary annually to adequately sustain ongoing recapitalization efforts.

For the NSC program, the bill includes $540 million for construction of the 10th vessel, and $95 million to purchase long-lead time material purchases for the 11th NSC, and $540 million to construct that ship. The Coast Guard’s original program of record for the NSC was eight of the 418-foot ships to replace 12 legacy high-endurance cutters that average close to 50 years old.

But congressional appropriators seem to signal they support a full replacement for all of the legacy high-endurance cutters.

In a report that accompanies the Omnibus bill, the appropriators say “Crewing concepts initiated by the Coast Guard that underpinned the assumption that 12 High Endurance Cutters could be replaced with 8 NSCs have proven unworkable.”

The NSC program has lived beyond the originally planned eight ships largely due to the work of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, whose home state is where shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] builds the ships. However, Cochran is retiring at the end of this month and it’s unclear whether there will be broad support among congressional appropriators going forward to build a 12th NSC to complete the one-for-one replacement of all 378-foot Hamilton-class high endurance cutters.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who is also a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is an important supporter of the NSC program. HII builds Navy and Coast Guard ships in Pascagoula, Miss., in the southeast part of the state, which isn’t far from the Alabama state line. A large portion of HII’s workforce lives in Alabama.

In their respective markups the past few years, House appropriators haven’t funded additional NSCs while Senate appropriators have. In the annual conference negotiations for the Department of Homeland Security’s budget, the Senate support for the program has always won out.

In January 2017, the Coast Guard awarded HII a contract to build the ninth NSC.

In addition to the plus-up for the NSC program, the Omnibus bill also provides $340 million for six 154-foot Fast Response Cutters, two more than requested. The report says that two of the FRCs will be for initiating the replacement of legacy 110-foot Island-class patrol boats assigned to U.S. Central Command.

The Coast Guard plans to acquire 58 FRCs and so far prime contractor Bollinger Shipyards has delivered 26 of the cutters. The Coast Guard has ordered 44 FRCs to date.

The bill also includes $500 million for the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC), as requested. The funding will enable construction of the first ship and provide for the purchase of long-lead time material for the second OPC, which is under contract to Eastern Shipbuilding.

The bill also provides $19 million for the heavy polar icebreaker, as requested. The funds maintain the accelerated schedule for the program, which is nearing the acquisition phase. The Coast Guard is seeking $750 million in FY ’19 for the icebreaker program, funds that will be used to award detailed design and construction of the first new heavy icebreaker for the service in more than 40 years with a targeted delivery date of 2023. There is also $150 million in the Navy’s FY ’17 budget for the first new polar icebreaker.

Five contractors are currently conducting design study contract for the icebreaker. The Coast Guard recently issued a Request for Proposals for the design and construction for the first of up to three heavy icebreakers.

In FY ’19, the Coast Guard is requesting $1.9 billion overall for its acquisition accounts, with no provision for a 12th NSC. For the ninth, 10th and 11th vessels, the Coast Guard never requested funding for these but appropriators ultimately provided the monies.

While the Coast Guard’s acquisition budgets for FY ’18 and FY ’19 appear wholesome, the outlook beyond then is unclear. The service’s five-year capital investment plan shows funding requests dipping to $1.4 billion in FY ’20, well below Zukunft’s $2 billion target. The reason for the drop in FY ’20 is because there are no construction funds for a second icebreaker.