Magazine article National Defense

Smoother Sailing: Coast Guard Assumes Oversight of Deepwater Program

Magazine article National Defense

Smoother Sailing: Coast Guard Assumes Oversight of Deepwater Program

Article excerpt

When the Coast Guard's new National Security Cutter, the Bertholf, stopped four boats carrying bales of cocaine 80 miles off the coast of Guatemala in July, it was welcome news for the service's "troubled" Deepwater modernization program.

Two and a half years after the service fired its lead contractor and set off to build up its own acquisition work force, Coast Guard leaders are hoping that the "troubled" tag will soon become a thing of the past.

"We have an organization that we are very proud of," Rear Adm. Ronald Rabago, assistant commandant for acquisition, told National Defense. "It's not yet perfect -- I would never say that -- but in the last two and half years it has moved along dramatically and is able to acquire any system or asset that the Coast Guard might need in the future."

Deepwater is a 25-year, $24.2 billion effort to modernize the Coast Guard fleet with a mix of ships, cutters, aircraft and a command, control and communications backbone to tie them all together. It initially hired the Lockheed Martin-Northrop Grumman consortium, Integrated Coast Guard Systems, to manage the program.

Deepwater began to run into technical problems -- especially after the 9/11 attacks reshaped the missions the service was expected to carry out. The consensus was that the Coast Guard did not have the personnel on hand to oversee ICGS' work on such a complex program.


In 2007, the Coast Guard announced that it would take over management of the program. To do so, it would have to build its own acquisition work force.

The service still conducts business with ICGS, Rabago said. It could not extract itself from the relationship overnight and there are "a few last task orders" to be completed, he said. Nevertheless, the Coast Guard will end its relationship with the consortium by January 2011.

"We wanted to make sure we did it in an orderly, smart fashion and not just simply cut things off and create problems for the Coast Guard," Rabago said. It may continue to award contracts to Northrop Grumman or Lockheed Martin individually.

Rabago said about 850 fulltime personnel are now working in the revamped directorate, which is responsible for Deepwater and all other Coast Guard acquisition programs, including the Rescue 21 advanced communications system. Congress has authorized the hiring of another 100 personnel in 2010.

Competition for systems engineers, contracting specialists and other acquisition personnel is keen in the Washington, D.C. region. The service has had to beef up its own numbers as other agencies within the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department are also on hiring binges as they attempt to take control of oversight of their own programs.

"We're getting to the point where we have a critical mass and we're setting up the pyramid where there are promotion opportunities for people. It's important for retention," Rabago said. The directorate has also put all the programs under one roof after years of personnel being scattered about the region in different office buildings.

"We're done reforming and we're in the process of polishing and improving," Rabago said.

As the Coast Guard claims progress, watchdogs are keeping a close eye on the program. The Government Accountability Office warned in a July report that the service "lags in applying its disciplined acquisition approach."

The disciplined approach referred to in the report is the "Major Systems Acquisition Manual," or MASM, which sets out clear guidelines as to what should be accomplished before each milestone decision is reached. Nine of the 13 programs investigated were behind on MASM compliance as of May, the report said. Not adhering to the process could result in schedule slips or cost overruns, the report added.

Throughout Deepwater's tribulations, the Coast Guard has stuck with the 25-year, $24 billion budget and timeline. …

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