Ex­pen­sive fail­ures: Scrapped ves­sels haunt Coast Guard

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Jen Haberkorn

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.

Katie Falkenberg / The Wash­ing­ton Times

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.

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