June 23, 2005
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By Nathaniel R. Helms
The U.S. Coast Guard's much vaunted $18 billion "Deepwater" modernization program to meet 21st century challenges is in serious trouble after four of its newly modernized 123-foot high-speed cutters cracked in the middle during sea trials, a DefenseWatch inquiry has revealed.
Foundering on rocks and shoals as a result is the Coast Guard's $367.5 million conversion plan to rebuild and modernize its fleet of 49 20-year-old 110-foot patrol craft, the backbone of the service's high-speed cutter fleet. The Deepwater program calls for each ship to receive an 11-ton, 13-foot extension to its stern and installation of a larger and slightly heavier upper works amidships.
Hull cracks in the renovated USCGC Matagorda halted Deepwater program.
The conversion of the Coast Guard's "Island class" cutters was underway at Lockport, La., by Halter-Bollinger JV, a newly formed consortium of two companies with long ties to the service until Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thomas H. Collins told Congress two weeks ago program managers had "concluded that the 123[-foot] design in inherently flawed and is working to overcome the flaw on these cutters."
Officially, Halter-Bollinger JV, the primary subcontractor on the project, has not been told to completely stop work, its spokesman said. He deferred comment to the parent corporation, Integrated Coast Guard Systems (ICGS), a joint venture between Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp.
Instead, T.R. Hamblin, Bollinger's vice-president for government programs, said his company "has not gotten anything that shows the program has been stopped, but there have been rumors to that effect for a little while." Hamblin is a retired Coast Guard commander and Coast Guard Academy graduate who heads the Island Class conversion project at Bollinger Shipyards.
"The Coast Guard had awarded [ship numbers] 9 through 12 long-lead material contracts (steel/electronics) almost a year ago, on July 30 2004 . We have all that stuff in our inventory but we aren't doing anything with it for now. We are waiting for ICGS to give us the word," Hamblin added.
ICGS is both the primary contractor and chief promoter of the "Deepwater" concept that will net the two defense industry giants billions of dollars over the next two decades. When the 110/123 conversion program got underway in early February 2003 amidst much hoopla, Lockheed Martin's Fred P. Moosally, vice chairman of ICGS, opined that Deepwater would produce "a modernized fleet and an interconnected Coast Guard that will be the envy of the world."
Unfortunately, Moosally's early optimistic prediction has gone awry.
During sea trials last summer to find out just how effective the 15-year life extension program was, the lead ship, USCGC Matagorda , at one point was running at approximately 24 knots in Sea State Five conditions (8-to-12-foot seas). At that point, the hull cracked amidships (Frame 22), Coast Guard sources said. Similar cracking problems subsequently occurred on the next three vessels coming off the ways. The shipyard made hurried repairs to strengthen the hulls but the converted cutters continued to crack at high speed in rough seas and the program has now been mothballed, Coast Guard officials confirmed.
Meanwhile, ambitious Coast Guard plans to acquire at least 35 off-the-shelf Spanish-built CASA CN-235 medium-range search aircraft to replace its aging fleet of Lockheed C-130H Hercules long-range patrol and search aircraft have been grounded while the service decides what it wants to do. Officials ordered the pause after recent experiences with two newly-acquired CN-235s revealed that the twin-engined turboprop aircraft are too small, too short-legged, and simply inadequate for the post-9/11 environment missions that the Coast Guard now finds itself required to perform, officials say.
Other problems have surfaced as well. Lockheed Martin recently announced it had discovered a serious "wing box cracking" problem in numerous U.S. Air Force C-130H aircraft and has called for a rigorous inspection and correction effort for every one of the Coast Guard's 27 CH-130H airplanes because they are of similar operational age as the affected Air Force airframes.
Collins told the sub-committee that five of his oldest CH-130Hs will undergo inspections during the next six months and operate at reduced operational levels until they are certified safe, with the 22 remaining aircraft to be inspected over the next five years. Depending on what the inspections reveal, the Coast Guard will at best continue using its existing airplanes without any major problems, and in the worst case will be forced to spend about $10 million per airplane to repair 16 of the best CH-130Hs and put them back in service.
Both revelations appeared in a May 31 2005 letter from Collins to Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY), chairman Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee. His letter came in response to congressional demands that the Coast Guard reveal what it intended to do with the $8.1 billion Congress appropriated for Fiscal Year 2005. Last month, the subcommittee took away about $466 million from the service when it failed to provide requested spending plans in a timely fashion, Collins said.
The short version of the explanation provided by the Coast Guard is that the Deepwater program, originally envisioned as a $10 billion, 25-year program when it was conceived in 1998, has been overwhelmed by events triggered by the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent Global War of Terror, explained Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Carter.
The long version is much more complicated. Several weeks ago, Collins told DefenseWatch that the irate representatives had demanded budgetary answers that weren't forthcoming so last month the committee took away a big chunk of the Coast Guard's appropriations until it complied. "We had extended negotiations with OMB (Office of Management and Budget) over the budget before it could be released. And then when we did release it, it was not what they requested and they cut our budget from $966M to $500M as sort of a message," Collins explained.
In his May 31 letter to Congress, Collins was more expansive.
"I understand there has been specific interest in the way ahead for patrol boats, particularly regarding pending decisions on the future of the 110-foot/123-foot conversion project and the status of available patrol boat hours, so I have included a summary of the current status of the ... project and patrol boat hours," Collins responded.
Presumably, Rogers and his fellow committee members were interested to learn that the first eight 110-foot/123-foot conversions have either been put on very limited duty or into storage, and the next four boats awaiting conversion are sitting in limbo while the Coast Guard and the manufacturers figure out what to do next. One of the questions the subcommittee members wanted an answer on was whether all the boats were available for duty when they were supposed to be. Rogers did not respond to a DefenseWatch inquiry.
Currently, eight of the vital 110-footers are on duty in the Middle East and eight newly-converted 123-footers are essentially unavailable except in an emergency, the Coast Guard says. And usually one-third of the remaining 110-foot vessels are either returning from or preparing for getting underway at any given moment. That leaves about 22 patrol boats - less than half the total force - available for immediate response to a crisis.
And that is definitely not what Congress wanted to hear.
Collins told Congress in his May 31 letter was that the 110-foot cutter conversion program, worth about $7.5 million per ship, was only the latest blow to a program that has been flaky from the start.
"The first cutter to undergo conversion, USCGC Matagorda , was burdened by considerable schedule slippages caused by greater-than-expected hull deterioration as well as technical problems in installing the new electrical suite," Collin admitted in his letter. "After Matagorda began operational work, it sustained serious structural damage when its hull buckled. Following an extensive evaluation, analysis and redesign, USCGC Matagorda returned to the shipyard for repairs and structural upgrade."
The cracks appeared first on the Matagorda after Bollinger Shipbuilding workers in Lockport added an 11-ton, 13-foot long section to the stern of the ship for a small boat-launching ramp and electronics suite and added a larger and heavier upper works forward to accommodate new communications gear and living spaces, Hamblin said. "The engineers studying the problems eventually determined that the hull had some significant problems. All the indications are that the root cause of the crack that a 3-inch aluminum I-beam that hadn't been welded when the ships were originally built."
"ICGS and Coast Guard did an investigation to find out what caused this. It was ultimately decided that hull should be strengthened by putting in three doubler plates," Hamblin continued. "That significantly strengthened the vessel as far as that bending moment [a nautical term describing the longitudinal flexing of a vessel] was concerned. The fix was put on all four vessels that had been delivered and incorporated into the last four."
"Safety is always a major issue with the Coast Guard," Hamblin added. "Everybody is trying to find the root cause. The Coast Guard isn't going to put a ship out there that will endanger the crew."
Hamblin, however, suggested that the Coast Guard's concern may still be misplaced. "It is all being re-looked at," he said, noting that he was a member of the Coast Guard team that originally purchased the British-inspired vessel almost two decades ago. "The United States Coast Guard has a belief. They go out and look at the boat and say that a plate appears to be dished in. These boats are old and well used, tired, the hungry dog look. What was dished before or after the modifications? We [Bollinger Shipbuilding] is redoing or relooking at all the boats. We think they are still strong. We are not seeing anything - at least in our mind - that is cause for level of concern we are dealing with."
Apparently Collins disagrees.
"The Coast Guard has subsequently concluded that the 123-foot design in inherently flawed and is working to overcome the flaw on these cutters," he reported to Congress.
An "industry spokesman" from ICSG who only agreed to speak with DefenseWatch with a guarantee of anonymity, said the real problem was trying to convert a ship that was already so old and worn out it should have been replaced altogether. "The entire problem is a lack of funding," the ICGS spokesperson claimed.
"Why are you keeping this old stuff?" the spokesperson rhetorically asked. "Why not buy new things? The Coast Guard first had to consider national security. Then it said, 'In the meantime let's add some capabilities right away.' They should have funded the new stuff earlier along and they would be farther along now instead of outfitting old ships, trying to bridge the gap until the new ships came along. The 110s are not even the worst. The Coast Guard has the third-oldest navy in the world, behind Korea and Iran ."
The Coast Guard has more problems with the so-called "Medium Range Search (MRS)" program intended to replace all 27 aging Lockheed C-130H Hercules patrol aircraft that it flies from five of its air stations around the country. The MRS is a Spanish-made, off-the-shelf, twin-engined aircraft called the CASA CN-235 that has about one-half the capacity and endurance of the venerable C-130. ICSG proposed the airplane on grounds that it would be the solution to replacing aircraft that are almost as old as some of its pilots.
Collins told Congress that "the ICGS-proposed MRS could not meet specifications for long-range surveillance and search and rescue without significant developmental and cost implication" and that it was not adequate "to support airlift of special teams such as Coast Guard strike teams, maritime safety and security teams .... "
Therefore, Collins told the subcommittee, the Coast Guard was scrapping its original plan to purchase 35 of the Spanish-built aircraft in favor of keeping 16 old HC-130s and six HC-130Js that it has already purchased but not yet deployed. In addition, the Coast Guard still intends to buy between 20 and 36 MRS aircraft "depending on the performance of the Deepwater system as it is delivered for operational use."
This would be good news for both the Coast Guard and Lockheed except for a newly discovered "wing box cracking" problem in the Air Force C-130H fleet brought on by age and stress. If the old planes are found to be affected, the service will be forced to overhaul the planes immediately at a projected cost of about $10 million per aircraft before they can be redeployed. Repairing all of them would add an additional $160 million to the Deepwater program that was not anticipated, Coast Guard officials say
Meanwhile, ICGS has been tasked with a $120 million project for the "missionization" of the six CH-130Js that the Coast Guard has already acquired so it can get them in the air as soon as possible. Right now the new airplanes are sitting "uselessly" at a New Jersey Coast Guard depot waiting for the authorization to modify them, the ICGS spokesperson said.
Other than that, Deepwater appears to be on track and the Coast Guard remains optimistic it will have the finest Coast Guard in the world when it completes its modernization program sometime in 2025, Collins reported.
While it may appear that the Deepwater program has already forced its promoters into water over their heads, it remains far too early – this is, after all only the third year of the program's 20-year cycle – to predict doom and gloom. Still, Deepwater has to succeed for the Coast Guard to remain relevant in the volatile 21st Century. And even its critics say Deepwater is better now that the Coast Guard recognizes its problems and is taking action to meet them head on.
Previously: "Guarding the Coast From Terror Threat," DefenseWatch , June 6, 2005 ;
"A Very Thin Shield for 'Northern Front,' " DefenseWatch , June 17, 2005 .
©2005 DefenseWatch.Contributing Editor Nathaniel R. "Nat" Helms is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, long-time journalist and war correspondent living in Missouri . He is the author of two books, Numba One – Numba Ten and Journey Into Madness: A Hitchhiker's Account of the Bosnian Civil War, both available at www.ebooks-online.com . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . Send Feedback responses to email@example.com . All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.