September 26, Fiercehomelandsecurity posted a story (“GAO: Not eliminating two National Security Cutters will cause ‘difficult choices'”) on a recent GAO report, “COAST GUARD, Portfolio Management Approach Needed to Improve Major Acquisition Outcomes” (download the report, GAO-12-918 (.pdf)). While the post focused on the apparent recommendation not to seek to build units seven and eight of the National Security Cutters, there was much more to the report.
Basically the GAO is saying that the Coast Guard is not using a systematic approach to its acquisitions, that much of the information that its budget is based on is out of date, and that the Coast Guard is allowing the Congressional Budget Process to determine its priorities.
I’m going to quote the report liberally:
What GAO Found
“The planned cost and schedule of the Coast Guard’s portfolio of major acquisitions is unknown because of outdated acquisition program baselines and uncertainty surrounding affordability. The Coast Guard’s approved baselines, which reflect cost and schedule estimates, indicate the estimated total acquisition cost of Coast Guard major acquisitions could be as much as $35.3 billion—an increase of approximately 41 percent over the original baselines. However, the approved baselines for 10 of 16 programs do not reflect current cost and schedule plans because programs have breached the cost or schedule estimates in those baselines, changed in scope, or do not expect to receive funding to execute baselines as planned. Furthermore, a continued mismatch between resources needed to support all approved baselines and expected funding levels has required the Coast Guard to make decisions about which programs to fund and which programs not to fund as part of its annual budget process. Both DHS and the Coast Guard have acknowledged this resource challenge, but efforts to address this challenge have not yet resulted in a clear strategy for moving forward.
“The Coast Guard has taken steps through its requirements process—a process that takes mission needs and converts them to specific capabilities—to address affordability, but additional efforts are required. For example, in an effort to consider affordability, the Coast Guard made some capability trade-offs when developing requirements for its largest acquisition, the Offshore Patrol Cutter. But whether the cutter ultimately will be affordable depends on some key assumptions in the cost estimate that are subject to change. At the fleet level, the Coast Guard completed two efforts to reassess what mix of assets it requires to meet mission needs, but neither effort used realistic fiscal constraints or considered reducing the number of assets being pursued. The mix of assets the Coast Guard is acquiring is based upon needs identified in 2005, but the Coast Guard may not be on a path to meet these needs and it has not re-examined the portfolio in light of affordability.
“The Coast Guard has established an acquisition governance framework that includes the following cross-directorate teams: the Executive Oversight Council, the Systems Integration Team, and Resource Councils. The Executive Oversight Council—composed of admirals and senior executives—is well-positioned to delegate tasks to the other teams or obtain information as needed to assist in managing acquisitions. This Council has been active in meeting to discuss individual acquisitions; however, it has not met to discuss the portfolio as a whole. Coast Guard officials told us it manages portfolio affordability through the budget process. GAO’s best practices work has found that successful commercial companies assess product investments collectively from an enterprise level, rather than as independent and unrelated initiatives. The Coast Guard’s current approach of relying on the annual budget process to manage portfolio affordability involves immediate trade-offs but does not provide the best environment to make decisions to develop a balanced long-term portfolio.
“Outdated acquisition program baselines and uncertainty surrounding the affordability of the Coast Guard’s acquisition portfolio continue to limit visibility into the current cost and schedule of the Coast Guard’s major acquisitions. Even though the Coast Guard has revised 15 out of 16 baselines in its major acquisition portfolio at least once, 10 of those 15 baselines do not reflect the current cost or schedule of the programs. According to the acquisition program baselines that are approved as of July 2012 and total program cost for programs with no planned funding beyond fiscal year 2014, the Coast Guard is managing a portfolio of major acquisitions that could cost as much as $35.3 billion—or 41 percent more than the original estimate of $25.1 billion—but the majority of these baselines do not reflect the current status of these programs. DHS and the Coast Guard have acknowledged that affordability of the Coast Guard’s portfolio is a challenge, but the mismatch between resources needed to support all approved baselines and anticipated funding levels continues to affect Coast Guard acquisitions. Some of this mismatch could be alleviated by the Coast Guard’s current five-year budget plan which does not include the final two National Security Cutters; however, Coast Guard officials have stated that, regardless of this plan, it continues to support completing the program of record. A decision to pursue the final two National Security Cutters in the near-term budget years could have significant portfolio-wide implications.
In other words, the Coast Guard hopes to buy a really nice dinner table, but can only afford three of the four legs. GAO is telling us we really should be looking a nice little Formica topped breakfast table.
I can see why they would say this, but on the other hand, I can see that the Coast Guard may view it differently. The GAO assumes that the Coast Guard’s AC&I budget will remain essentially the same with minor fluctuations. From the Coast Guard perspective that is a prescription for disaster. It really needs to increase to approximately $2B/year. There is also likely, a fear that if they ask procurement that would fit within the budget, that would be trimmed even more by the the Department and the Administration, and the service would be even worse off.
Costs are greatly dependent on order quantity and time of funding. Is the estimated price of a system to be based on the build rate we need, or the build rate we think we will see? If we choose wrong, the baseline will be wrong and will not reflect reality.
Congress and GAO do recognize inflation rates, but they don’t seem to have recognized that inflation is higher in the shipbuilding industry than in the economy as a whole, so as ship construction is pushed to the right, the projects will get more expensive, even on an inflation adjusted basis.
“DHS stated that future breaches in Coast Guard programs would almost be inevitable as funding resources diminish. (p.17)
“Due to these capability shortfalls, the Coast Guard is at risk of purchasing a fleet that will not be able to close all of the gaps identified following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks or fully conduct operations in a presence-based manner. While the 2005 Mission Need Statement presented a business case for the Coast Guard’s future investments, the Coast Guard has not re-examined the value of these assets in light of the difficult affordability decisions likely to come. By continuing to pursue some capabilities and not others without reevaluating the portfolio as a whole, the Coast Guard is increasing the risk that it may not accomplish the goals envisioned in 2005 and cannot ensure it is maximizing the value of the assets it is buying.”
While unmanned systems, and comprehensive maritime domain awareness may have allowed the CG to do with fewer ships, in the absence of these systems we need more ships and manned aircraft.
“Coast Guard program officials also added that the cost estimate for the Offshore Patrol Cutter is optimistic in that it assumes that the cutter will be built in accordance with the current acquisition strategy and planned schedule. They noted that any delays, design issues, or contract oversight problems—all of which were experienced during the purchase of the National Security Cutter—could increase the eventual price of the Offshore Patrol Cutter.”
While the (Coast Guard’s) Executive Oversight Council has had opportunities to discuss affordability of the entire portfolio and make informed trade-off decisions, Coast Guard officials told us that all of these decisions are handled through the annual budget process, which also takes into account budgeting for operating expenses. However, the Coast Guard’s current approach of relying on the budget process to manage the affordability of its portfolio has proven ineffective. The preparation of the annual budget request involves immediate trade-offs, but does not provide the best environment to make decisions to develop a balanced, long-term portfolio. As we have previously reported, given that the Coast Guard is managing more programs than its budget can support, and it does not review its portfolio outside of the annual budget process, the Coast Guard has relied on budget decisions each year to drive the acquisitions process. As a result, program managers react to the budget request each year as opposed to having a reliable funding profile consistent with their approved baselines by which to execute their programs. One of the responsibilities in the Executive Oversight Council’s charter is to synchronize projects with planning, programming, budgeting, and execution milestones to align them for successful completion of key milestones, but Coast Guard officials acknowledged that this alignment has not yet occurred.
“Opportunities Exist to Address Affordability through the Requirements Process”
Perhaps there are opportunities to look at alternatives to the platforms in the existing program of record.
The program of record replaces the existing fleet with more sophisticated more capable platforms, but these platforms are also relatively expensive, and cannot be procured in the numbers needed, within the existing budget. But should the budget be fixed at this level?
Essentially the size of Coast Guard’s cutter fleet actually shrank as we went from a 3 mile territorial sea, to a 12 mile territorial sea, to a 200 Exclusive Economic Zone; as we went from doing “courtesy” boardings where we did a little research and swapped dirty magazines with foreign F/V crews, to enforcing fisheries regulations and hunting for drugs of the West Coast of South America. The job has grown immensely but the fleet never did.