The Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee (SAC HS) on Tuesday approved a $40.2 billion net discretionary bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in FY ’16, less than the Obama administration requested but still making room for a ninth National Security Cutter (NSC) for the Coast Guard, a ship that wasn’t requested.

The addition of a new NSC for the Coast Guard doesn’t come as a complete surprise given that Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), chairman of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, ran a hard fought re-election campaign with a platform calling for continuing production of the high-endurance cutter line beyond the planned eight-ship buy. In April, during a SAC HS hearing on the DHS FY ’16 budget request, Cochran re-pledged his commitment to the cutter program by calling for a ninth ship (Defense Daily, April 29).

National Security Cutter James, the fifth NSC, which recently became part of the Coast Guard's fleet.. Photo: Huntington Ingalls Industries
National Security Cutter James, the fifth NSC, which recently became part of the Coast Guard surface fleet. Photo: Huntington Ingalls Industries

In his re-election campaign platform, Cochran included production of 12 NSCs as part of his platform. The NSC is built by Huntington Ingalls Industries’ [HII] Ingalls shipbuilding division in Cochran’s state. The Coast Guard plan has been to acquire eight NSCs to replace 12 aging Hamilton-class high endurance cutters.

The subcommittee is recommending $640 million for the ninth Legend-class NSC, which would seem to include both long-lead material and construction funding. Construction funding of $500 million for the eighth NSC was awarded to HII earlier this year.

A press release issued by SAC HS Republican leadership said the DHS appropriations mark-up increases funding for the Coast Guard’s acquisition account, although a separate release from subcommittee Democrats said most of an increase to the service’s overall budget is for the ninth NSC and comes at the expense of the Fast Response Cutter (FRC), while other important programs such as the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) and the new polar icebreaker “received minimal funding.”

The subcommittee is recommending $230 million for four FRCs, two more vessels, and $120 million higher, than enacted in FY ’15 but still two boats fewer, and $110 million less, than the Coast Guard requested for FY ’16. Bollinger Shipyards is the current FRC contractor, but the FY ’16 funding marks the start of a recompete for the remaining 26 vessels of the planned buy of 58 FRCs.

With the eighth NSC under contract, the Coast Guard’s top acquisition priority is the OPC, a planned 25-ship buy to replace aging medium endurance cutters. The Coast Guard has requested $18.5 million for the OPC in FY ’16 and DHS has asked Congress for authority to transfer $70 million within the department to the service to keep the program on track.

The Republican release on the bill said it provides funding to continue activities on the OPC, the polar icebreaker, and sustainment offices for programs like the C-130J aircraft and HH-65 helicopter.

Currently Bollinger, General Dynamics [GD], and Eastern Shipbuilding Group are working under separate preliminary and contract design contracts for the OPC, which is worth up to $11 billion through construction and related program management. The provision to transfer funding to the OPC program, which is expected to be part of the SAC HS markup, will enable the Coast Guard to complete the detailed design phase.

The Coast Guard in 2016 is expected to downselect to a single shipbuilder for the OPC.

Overall, the bill provides $10.3 billion for the Coast Guard, excluding funding related to Overseas Contingency Operations. The amount is $496 million more than in FY ’15 and $570 million more than requested.

In addition to funding a new NSC, the bill provides increases for operating expenses, allowing for quicker responses by fixed wing search and rescue aircraft, maintaining rotary wing air facilities, and providing incentive pay for hard-to-fill billets, according to the Republican statement on the budget.

The $40.2 billion in net discretionary funds for DHS in the bill represents a $1.2 billion cut from the administration’s request.