Magazine article National Defense

Rough Seas

Magazine article National Defense

Rough Seas

Article excerpt

Coast Guard procurement programs struggling, but staying afloat

NEW ORLEANS - Coast Guard officials are optimistic that a new agency in charge of acquisitions can help salvage the service's modernization plans and restore confidence in its ability to manage complex projects.

Acquisition programs must get back on track soon, officials said, because the Coast Guard's current equipment may not last much longer.

"The Coast Guard has never been more decrepit," said Rear Adm. Gary T. Blore, assistant commandant for acquisition and head of the new "CG-9" acquisition directorate.

Speaking at the Coast Guard's annual technology symposium here, Blore and odier CG-9 officials said they are aggressively moving to hire qualified procurement managers and to boost the skills of the current workforce of nearly 2,000 people.

The directorate oversees 20 programs worth about $27 billion.

An immediate goal is to fix the Coast Guard's $24 billion Integrated Deepwater Systems and the Rescue 21 communications system. These programs aim to replace 40-year-old ships and decades-old communications technologies.

Cost overruns and delays in these projects have tarnished the service's reputation and have sparked added scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

The Coast Guard must act soon to regain credibility or will risk funding cuts in the years ahead, analysts said.

"The Coast Guard cannot afford to go wrong on major acquisition programs," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a national security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. Past failures have led to "difficulty in securing adequate funding for all its priorities, including modernization," she said.

The Coast Guard's budget for fiscal year 2008 increased by 3 percent to $8.73 billion, but funding for acquisition of new equipment decreased by 19 percent this year. Recent acquisition troubles, particularly in Deepwater, were a contributing factor, said Stephen Caldwell, acting director of homeland security and justice affairs at the Government Accountability Office.

The service has a big job ahead trying to prove to Congress that it can manage the Deepwater recapitalization program. The project had been managed by a team of Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, but the Coast Guard took over management of the program last year after disclosures of significant cost overruns and design flaws in new cutters.

The Coast Guard in July 2007 consolidated parts of its acquisition office and created the CG-9 acquisition directorate.

This was a smart move, Eaglen said. Under the previous organization, there were too many stovepipes that did not communicate with each other. An integrated organization should help in making programs more interoperable, she noted.

Under Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen's direction, CG-9 officials wrote the "Blueprint for Acquisition Reform," which outlines a plan to strengthen procurement and contracting.

These changes are a "helpful early step toward addressing the myriad of procurement challenges the Coast Guard currently faces," Eaglen said.

Ultimately, she said, the service needs to prove that these new measures will translate into real success. "All the reforms in the world do not matter unless there is a highly skilled, professional and trained acquisition workforce to carry them out."

The current procurement woes are not accidental, noted Stephen Flynn, senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Government procurement personnel cutbacks dating back to the 1990s led the Coast Guard - as well as the other military services - to gradually turn over the management of large programs to contractors. After 9/11, the Coast Guard took on new and more complex missions but lacked inhouse procurement personnel to oversee the modernization of the fleet. Not surprisingly, said Flynn, "Deepwater was not well-executed."

The Rescue 21 project, like Deepwater, has been under fire for major cost overruns and delays. …

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