Expensive failures: Scrapped vessels haunt Coast Guard
Eight ships that were supposed to be the government’s latest, best weapon for stopping terrorists, illegal immigrants and smugglers now float unused in a U.S. Coast Guard shipyard in Baltimore, the symbol of a nearly $100 million taxpayer debacle.
Instead of patrolling, the ships were deemed unfit for the high seas after just a couple of months of use and eventually will be dismantled without ever fulfilling their promise.
The Coast Guard hopes to finally put the problems with its much maligned “Deepwater” program behind it, taking ownership this month of a brand new 418-foot national security cutter that was built from scratch after contractors bungled the modernization of the earlier eight ships.
Commissioning of the USCGC Bertholf will be the next major step in a 25-year, $24 billion project to extend the Coast Guard’s reach further than ever before beyond U.S. shores. Taxpayers, however, won’t see much benefit until the Bertholf is tested and cleared for duty over the next couple of years.
Integrated Coast Guard Systems (ICGS), the contracting group that is finishing testing of the $641 million Bertholf, insists the ship is performing well in sea trials and should be free of the problems that doomed the earlier vessels.
The Bertholf also has received high marks from the U.S. Navy Board of Inspection and Survey. The board described the ship — the flagship of the first new class of cutters in 25 years — as “a unique and very capable platform with great potential for future service” in the Coast Guard.
Inspectors found fewer problems with the Bertholf than is typical with a first-of-class ship, according to ICGS, which is made up of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp.
Spokeswoman Megan Mitchell noted that the new cutter has a totally different design from the eight 123-foot cutters that developed cracks after their upgrades and are now tied up at the Coast Guard’s Baltimore yard waiting to be dismantled.
The troubled Deepwater program began in the 1990s, when the Coast Guard sought a modernization project for its aging fleet of ships to improve its capacity to operate more than 50 miles offshore.
The idea was to issue one contract to manage the entire replacement over a 25-year period, rather than replacing the fleet one product at a time.
ICGS was awarded the contract, which eventually will include 91 ships, 124 boats, 195 aircraft, management equipment and logistics.
The first major Deepwater project encountered problems after ICGS spent nearly $100 million to attach 13-foot ramps to the backs of 110-foot cutters to allow small boats to launch into the water quickly to chase suspicious watercraft.
ICGS learned that cracks developed in the hull when the USCGC Matagorda was fleeing Hurricane Ivan off the coast of Florida in 2004. When the Coast Guard decommissioned the vessels in November 2006, Commandant Adm. Thad Allen said the problems were too numerous to repair.
Adm. Allen said the ships were pulled out of service “to ensure the continued safety of our crews as we assess additional structural damage recently discovered aboard this class of cutter.” He said the contractor knowingly in- stalled equipment that failed to meet specific environmental requirements outlined in the costly Deepwater contract.
The Coast Guard cited cracking on the deck, deformation of the hull and problems with shaft alignment, and abandoned plans to overhaul all 49 of its 110-foot cutters. In 2005, the eight ships already converted were prohibited from operating in seas deeper than eight feet.
The ships then were moved out of the way in the Baltimore yard.
In several reports, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized oversight of the construction process and said the Coast Guard had to maintain more decision-making authority. In March 2004, the GAO said the Coast Guard’s assessment of ICGS’s performance “lacked rigor.”
Adm. Allen told a Senate committee last year that the failure of the 123s was unacceptable and that he established a group to determine responsibility.
The ICGS said it is investigating the failures. Ms. Mitchell declined to talk about specifics, including the Coast Guard’s role in the ICGS investigation.
The Coast Guard requested reimbursement from the ICGS last May and confirmed last week that it is working with “other federal agencies investigating the contractor’s failure to deliver 123-foot cutters meeting the requirements,” a spokeswoman said.
The Justice Department declined to say whether it is investigating.
Congress also is trying to resolve the issue. Two weeks ago, the House overwhelmingly passed the Coast Guard’s reauthorization bill. Supporters say it contains safeguards to prevent the mismanagement and lack of oversight that led to the problems with the 123s. The measure would prohibit the Coast Guard from naming a contractor the “lead systems integrator,” a chief decision-making role.
President Bush has threatened to veto the bill because of a provision requiring the Coast Guard to enforce security around liquefied natural gas terminals. The Senate is expected to take up its version after the Memorial Day recess.
“The Coast Guard Authorization Act gets the Deepwater program back on course,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. “As someone who cares about the Coast Guard, it has been disturbing to see the mismanagement of this program.”
It likely will take years to determine the root of the problem, said one congressional aide, because both sides are trying to “muddy the waters” of information.
“It’s going to be very hard to find a definitive answer on what happened with the 123s,” the aide said, adding that there are no signs the new cutter has the same problem as the 123s.
U.S. Coast Guard cutters sit unused at the shipyard in Baltimore after the costly Deepwater project encountered problems with extensions and cracked hulls. Commandant Adm. Thad Allen said problems were too numerous to repair when the vessels were decommissioned in 2006.