GAO Report on Operational Test and Evaluation of the National Security Cutter


GAO has published a report on the National Security Cutters, GAO-16-148, contending, “Enhanced Oversight Needed to Ensure Problems Discovered during Testing and Operations Are Addressed.” Note, it goes beyond problems discovered during tests and evaluation, to include other problems encountered during operation.

Results are interesting. In many ways it sounds discouraging, with ten major deficiencies found during testing, but on the basis of my very limited experience with this sort of thing, I suspect it is at least no worse than average. After all, the cutter was rated as operationally effective and suitable. The Littoral Combat Ship program is very much a contemporary program, and it is also still undergoing testing.

During testing there were problems with the gantry on the stern, the single point davit, the gun, air search radar, and the Nulka decoy system. I did find it a bit troubling that essentially, all the weapon systems seemed to be having problems.

Probably more troubling are the problems encountered during operations, “…the NSC’s engines and generators have experienced persistent problems, the reasons for which are not yet known. As a result of these and other equipment casualties, the NSC has been operating in a degraded condition in some mission areas, even while having spent fewer days away from home port than planned.” Problems with the main engines include an inability to maintain full power while operating in warm water due to over heating and incidents of cracked cylinder heads at a higher than normal rate, page 31-35.  Generator bearings are overheating and failing at an unacceptable rate, page 35/36. The generator problems have resulted in ships operating with no functional back-up generator.

You can find a list of “Initial Operational Test and Evaluation Major Deficiencies and Coast Guard plans to resolve them” in Table 5, page 23/24.

Table 6, page 28 identifies “Retrofits and Design Changes for the National Security Cutter Class with Costs over $1 Million as of June 2015” totaling $202.1M. This is of course an incomplete list, in that additional changes are expected. Changes are also expected for the ammunition hoists, and the stern and side doors.

Replacement of the Gantry Crane (page 29): The crane, intended to move boats around the stern, was not designed for a salt water environment. I’m sorry, whose idea was this? How was this ever acceptable. If the shipyard picked the crane, I think they owe us at least the cost of replacement. A replacement has apparently been successfully prototyped.

Single Point Davit, page 30: The davit doesn’t work in high sea states, and it is not compatible with the Over the Horizon Boat IV so the ships end up with three different type boats. A replacement for this has also been prototyped.

Appendix II provides a “Summary of the Key Performance Parameters of the National Security Cutter,” page 42/43.

“As we found in 2015, during 2013 and 2014 the NSC fleet spent fewer days away from home port than the Coast Guard’s interim goal of 210 days. In addition, the NSCs operated in a degraded condition in one or more mission areas during a majority of their time spent in operations from 2010 to 2014 due to major equipment casualties.”

But the ships have a degree of redundancy and a depth of capability that allowed them to carry on.

“Although the NSC was often operating with major casualties during the period we examined, during the period from September 2013 through September 2015 the NSC was not mission capable as a result of maintenance needs only about 2 percent of the time, indicating that the casualties experienced during those years did not prevent the NSC from maintaining at least partial mission capability.”

Despite the lack of maturity of these assets, in terms of routing out systemic problems, that 2% figure is far better than the legacy fleet.

There was also a somewhat surprising note that the NSCs have space, weight, and power for a mine detection system.

We have Bryant’s Maritime Consulting to thank for the link to this document. 

8 thoughts on “GAO Report on Operational Test and Evaluation of the National Security Cutter

  1. Thanks for the update. It’s interesting to read about the issues they are experiencing and how they will be addressed. Some of them seem pretty unbelievable like the Gantry Crane not being designed for a salt water environment. Did they think these were going to operate exclusively in the Great Lakes? That is certainly a major bonehead decision.

    I’m most surprised by the engine and generator issues. While I’m not familiar with the specifics, it’s not like these are new areas for the maritime industry. How many proven designs are out there for these two and why didn’t they use one? Or at least an improved version of one?

    • The engines are MTUs. A very reputable company, but there may be other issues in the way cooling water is piped to the engines. Is there enough? the way the intakes are mounted to the hull, do they ram water into the ship or do they perhaps create a low pressure area at high speeds that keep cooling water from reaching the engine or heat exchanger?

    • Of all the deficiencies, the gantry crane is the most absurd, and the one that should be investigated. Who the H signed off on installing machinery not intended to be used in a salt water environment on a vessel that is designed to operate in a salt water environment?

      I guess this is what happens when a majority of the service no longer goes to sea.

  2. So the Combat System fails… on a relatively new ship…. that knew it would be inspected. How likely is it to work when a no-notice real world event crops up?
    No room for techs to access equipment? Can’t race in warm water? These seem like JV errors.

  3. WRT to a mine detection capability, the NSC was supposed to have it from the get – go.

    From the Coast Guard’s “Report to Congress on Revised Deepwater Implementation Plan 2005”, available at

    ” The NSC Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection suite will include underwater sonar that will allow the cutter to scan ports, approaches, facilities and high-value assets for underwater, minelike
    devices and detect swimmers. ”

    I note the phrase… will include. How is that coming?

  4. Chuck,
    This report is something that I think should not be. Was there any thought put into the design? The cutters certainly look to be very robust, but this report states problems that disconcerting. Do you think that the current Bertholf’ s under construction will be able to correct these concerns? Finally, did the Navy have any kind of similar concerns with the Burkes?

    • Don’t know about the Burkes, they have had the benefit of evolving over a very long time, the first one having been commissioned in 1991. Always better to have an evolving, constantly improving series.

      The Navy is having problems with the LCS. Their testing programs are still on going. The mission modules still are not working or fully suitable. Two of the Freedom class have had apparently unrelated problems with their combining gearbox. They have had problems with their water jets as well and the Freedom class’s range is will below the design objective, which was really very modest.

      The objectives set for the Bertolfs in terms of expected life was unusually high, but that is because we run ships forever. I think the problems with the engines may be related to the installation rather than the engines themselves. It may turn out that the fix i relatively simple.

      I am hopeful that as long as it has taken to choose an OPC design, perhaps they will get it right.

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