Trouble Coast Guard Cutter Threatens Deepwater

Article excerpt

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Coast Guard is considering purchasing commercial vessels to serve as stopgaps after the development of its fast response cutter stalled this year.

The new cutter program has been plagued by delays and the Coast Guard fears it may have potential design flaws, according to Commandant Adm. Thad Allen.

"I have a responsibility to my people to put new cutters in their hands, and I intend to do that," he told reporters at the Coast Guard Innovation conference, sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association.

The fast response cutter is a key vessel in the Deepwater program, a 25-year, $24-billion effort to modernize and integrate the services' air and sea assets. The overall program has run into several stumbling blocks, including the design of the fast response cutter and the funding of an unmanned aerial vehicle, the Eagle Eye, which also suffered a crash during a test flight earlier this year. Deepwater underwent a revision after 9/11 to take on new homeland security missions. The new requirements boosted the program's cost from $17 billion to $24 billion.

The decision to purchase commercial "off-the-shelf" ships to serve as fast response cutters was made before the release of a Government Accountability Office report, which outlined the Coast Guard's woes in attempting to use composite materials, rather than steel, to construct the hull, decks and bulkheads. Coast Guard engineers raised several concerns about the use of the unproven technology, which initiated a design review.

"The Coast Guard has spent approximately $26.7 million for design and test efforts on the FRC, although it has yet to produce a viable design," the report said.

The Coast Guard is interested in using composite materials because they are thought to be lighter, and offer lower maintenance and lifecycle costs. The cutters were initially scheduled for delivery in 2018. The original plan called for the conversion of all 49 of the service's 110-foot patrol boats into 123-foot patrol boats to serve as cutters until delivery of the FRC. However, that plan ran into snags as well, prompting the Coast Guard to move up delivery of the new cutter to 2008.

The accelerated schedule proved too aggressive, the report suggested, especially since the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have little experience designing large ships with composite materials.

If the design review fails to approve the plan to use composite materials, Allen said he would like to have a contract in place for a proven commercial off-the-shelf ship within one year. A request for information to potential contractors went out in April. How quickly and how many cutters could be delivered would depend on the manufacturer, he added.

Because composite materials don't have a long track record on U.S. military ships, the report criticized the Coast Guard for not having a contingency plan in place in case designs fell short.

"While we validate whether or not a composite hull design will be the right platform for the Coast Guard, we have to face the fact that we have a significant gap in patrol boat hours to the tune of about 20,000 hours annually," Allen said.

The fast response cutter, as its name suggests, is designed to respond quickly to emergencies or law enforcement missions. The 140-foot vessel will have a range of 4,230 nautical miles and move at speeds of up to 30 knots. Under the Deepwater roadmap, the service would acquire 58 ships.

The delays could hurt the overall Deepwater project, conceived as a "system-of-systems." The service will have to rely on its "aging and deteriorating patrol boats," the GAO said. …