Coast Guard Project to Modernize Ships Runs Aground
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The Coast Guard is in the middle of updating its fleet. The program is supposed to cost $24 billion. And if you want to know why some lawmakers were upset at a hearing about this, consider that $24 billion may not be enough.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports on the building effort.
PAM FESSLER: The program called Deepwater is intended to replace or modernize hundreds of Coast Guard ships and aircraft over the next 25 years. This week, the Homeland Security Department's inspector general said the largest new ship - a 418-foot cutter - has serious design flaws that could cause structural cracks, and that this will likely mean higher maintenance costs and a shorter life span for the ship. The inspector general also said that the Coast Guard yielded too much authority to its contractors - Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman - and that the agency did not cooperate with its investigation into the program.
Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings - who chairs the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee - called it one of the most troubling inspector general reports he's ever read.
Representative ELIJAH CUMMINGS (Democrat, Maryland): The HS's IG's report would suggest that the Coast Guard and its contractors have knowingly and willfully spent close to $1 billion - a figure that is likely to rise - to build a flawed ship, and that as a result of this decision. The United States taxpayer is likely to now have to pay for repairs on brand new vessels.
FESSLER: More troublesome, he said, is that the Coast Guard's technical experts raised concerns about the ship's design as early as 2002. And even after a memo two years later from an assistant commandant recommending that production not proceed until the problems were resolved, the project went ahead anyway.
Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen said there was concern that slowing things down would lead to even higher costs.
Admiral THAD ALLEN (Coast Guard Commandant): Whether you agree with it or not, the decision that was taken was that they would continue to take a look at the structural issues that were raised in the memo, and to the extent direct refitting was needed, that would be done on the first and second hulls after delivery so as not to break production and incur cost and schedule delays there.
FESSLER: Allen said he has since reorganized this agency to resolve similar problems more quickly if they come up again. And he vowed to exercise more oversight over the multi-billion dollar contract.
Allen also took issue with some of the report's findings. He said the design flaws are a matter of debate. And he insisted that the cutters will be able to function for a full 30 years as originally planned. But the inspector general's report is only the latest bad news for the Deepwater program.
Adm. ALLEN: I'm seeing a pattern here.
FESSLER: Mississippi Democrat Gene Taylor noted that in November, the Coast Guard was forced to stop using eight newly-renovated patrol boats because of cracks in the hulls and engine failures. The government spent a $100 million on the upgrades.
Representative GENE TAYLOR (Democrat, Mississippi): You have eight vessels that were fully capable before it went to the shipyard. Now you got eight pieces of junk sitting at the dock - maybe good for a river patrol boat or give it to Colombia or somebody - but that you can't take out to sea. Is that fairly accurate?
Unidentified Man: We're under...
Rep. TAYLOR: And no one is at fault.
FESSLER: Taylor and others complained that it was not clear who would pick up the cost of any mistakes, the government or the contractor. New Jersey Republican Frank LoBiondo warned Allen that there's growing pressure in Congress to suspend the entire program.
Mr. FRANK LOBIONDO (Republican, New Jersey): The Coast Guard is in too much of a dire need of the assets, but we can't sustain any more bad news.
FESSLER: Allen agreed and said he knew that he had no choice but to get the rest of the program right.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.