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Government Finds All Kinds of Problems with Coast Guard Cutters

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WASHINGTON -- Government officials on Wednesday told a congressional subcommittee that the Coast Guard needs better oversight of its testing and contracting policies after a federal review and subsequent reporting found numerous operational deficiencies in the Coast Guard's largest and most technologically advanced ships.

National security cutters, built by Huntington Ingalls Industries at their Pascagoula, Miss., shipyard, are the workhorses of the Coast Guard fleet.

The $640 million vessels conduct a variety of operations, including homeland security, environmental protection, law enforcement, marine safety and national defense missions.

Ingalls already has delivered five cutters, and it has three more under construction. All eight ships are expected to be fully operational by 2020. Ingalls hopes to secure the contract for a ninth cutter, which was funded in the 2015 omnibus spending bill.

While Navy tests on one of the cutters in April 2014 found the ship to be operationally effective and suitable, the review also found 10 major deficiencies that affected the performance of crucial systems on the ship. Four of the problems related to the ship's weapon systems.

The tests took place roughly two years later than originally planned and after seven of the cutters were already under contract, according to a January report by the Government Accountability Office.

While the Navy found that none of the deficiencies was severe enough to keep the ship from accomplishing its mission, some of the problems are ongoing and have hampered its ability to do certain operations.

For instance, "the Coast Guard has not yet demonstrated that the (cutter) can achieve a hard and soft kill against a subsonic cruise missile as required," said written testimony Wednesday from Michele Mackin, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the GAO.

The GAO report last month outlined the problems and called on the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard, to clarify its performance requirements for the cutters and the time frames for testing the ships.

The situation didn't sit well with Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who is chairman of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure.

"The American public deserves assets that perform as intended and expected," Hunter said. "We do not need missions to be continually compromised due to the limitations of old and new vessels."

William Glenn, a spokesman for Huntington Ingalls, declined to comment on the GAO report, saying it referred to ships already delivered to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard plans to correct all the problems. It already has fixed four of the 10 major deficiencies involving equipment failures and expects to fix four more, according to the GAO report.

But two of the problems -- regarding electronic racks and remote-operated valves -- may not be corrected because of the cost of the needed fleetwide fixes and because interim solutions are being implemented. Additional Navy testing of the cutters will occur in the fall.

Other problems, however, have surfaced with the national security cutters during regular Coast Guard operations.

The GAO report found the Coast Guard will have to pay $202 million for design changes and equipment upgrades to correct problems that weren't identified in the Navy tests in 2014.

That includes $88.5 million to repair or replace assorted command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment, $38 million for structural enhancements and $31 million to replace corroding gantry cranes that were not waterproofed.

Other problems with unknown causes include an average of four cracked engine cylinder heads per month on each operational ship, malfunctioning propulsion systems and high engine temperatures when patrolling in warm water.

In testimony Wednesday, Rear Adm. Joseph Vojvodich said the Coast Guard was paying for the fixes, rather than the shipbuilder and equipment manufacturers, because the warranty for the ships didn't cover the repairs.

Mackin, of the GAO, said the contractual shortcomings of the national security cutters were one of the "lessons learned" for government bean counters. She said smaller cutters being purchased in the future would have stronger warranties.

But Ronald O'Rourke, a specialist in naval affairs for the Congressional Research Service, testified that stronger warranties for ships will drive up their cost, because shipbuilders will price that into the contract.

"The idea that you can get warranty protection and not have to pay for it, you're deluding yourself on that," O'Rourke said. "When you weigh the cost of that warranty against the risks, it may or may not make sense to have that warranty."

Related Video:

A brief look at our Coast Guard’s many missions.

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