After four years of construction, the U.S. Coast Guard expects to accept its first National Security Cutter by early May, but testing and shakedown runs could delay full deployment for almost two years, according to a top Coast Guard official.
The cutter Bertholf is at sea, undergoing acceptance trials with a crew supplied by contractor Northrop Grumman and under the supervision of the U.S. Navy's Board of Inspection and Survey, said Rear Adm. Gary Blore, the Coast Guard's assistant commandant for acquisition.
"It's been a long time coming but I'm glad we're here," Blore told reporters in a teleconference from Coast Guard headquarters, adding that the acquisition process, which he conceded has been criticized in the past, "has taken a little bit longer than I would have hoped." That's one reason the Navy was brought in as an outside inspector.
He said the Bertholf's prospective captain, the Navy and a Coast Guard board will recommend whether or not to accept the 418-foot, 4,300-ton vessel, which is expected to cost $640.7 million. Instrument testing of the ship's command, control, computers and communications systems are being conducted to ensure that commercial-off-the-shelf systems are properly shielded so that classified communications don't emanate beyond the ship, posing security risks. Blore said he was "not optimistic" the C4ISR equipment would be certified for classified transmissions by May 1 "but we'll know what the issues are" that must be addressed.
If all goes according to plan, the Coast Guard will take possession of the Bertholf by the first week in May, Blore said. The Bertholf is scheduled to be commissioned a Coast Guard cutter on Aug. 4 and posted to its permanent berth in Alameida, Calif. But Blore noted that additional trials, training and systems testing could take about 22 months before the Bertholf is fully deployed.
Among those tests could be takeoffs and landings of the Navy's Fire Scout vertical unmanned aerial vehicle (VUAV). The National Security Cutter is designed to carry two helicopters and two VUAVS but last year the Coast Guard scrapped its Eagle Eye VUAV program. "We're already talking with their squadron [PMA266] out of Patuxent River to see if they would like to bring Fire Scout on board" the Coast Guard cutter, Blore said.