Hearing: “Review of Recent GAO Reports on Icebreaker Acquisition and the Need for a National Maritime Strategy”

Note: Apparently as a result of the Government Shutdown, links to the House of Representative’s Website that have been included in this are no longer available and once you get their error message you will no longer be able to back arrow to this site. You will have to reload. Hopefully these link will be reestablished some time in the future, so I have left them in. I have been unable to relocate some of the quotations below to provide more specific citations so I am going to go ahead and publish without them.  

Again, I have to apologize for being late in analysis of a Congressional hearing. In this case it is the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, “Review of Recent GAO Reports on Icebreaker Acquisition and the Need for a National Maritime Strategy” that took place on 29 November, 2018.

The video actually begins at minute 21.

Witnesses were:

  • Rear Admiral Michael J. Haycock, Assistant Commandant for Acquisition & Chief Acquisition Officer, United States Coast Guard  | Written Testimony
  • Rear Admiral Mark H. “Buz” Buzby, USN, Ret., Administrator, Maritime Administration  | Written Testimony
  • Ms. Marie A. Mak, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management, Government Accountability Office  | Written Testimony
  • Mr. Andrew Von Ah, Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues, Government Accountability Office  | Written Testimony
  • Mr. Ronald O’Rourke, Specialist in Naval Affairs, Congressional Research Service  | Written Testimony

Subcommittee members present included:

All five Representatives won reelection, so it is probable we will see them on the Subcommittee next year. Representative Garamendi was clearly excited and optimistic about the becoming chair of the House Sub-Committee. He strongly reports Coast Guard recapitalization. He also expressed a desire to see Rep. Brian Mast return as ranking member.

The two topics were essentially unrelated. We have revisited the topic of the Polar Security Cutter/Heavy Polar Icebreaker numerous times.

GAO is still contending there are Scheduling and Technological risks. They don’t seem to recognize the steps that have been taken to minimize these risks and that the largest scheduling risk is in delaying the start of the project once the detail design is substantially complete. There is real urgency in the need to replace Polar Star and they don’t seem to recognize that. Yes, the Coast Guard might have done a better job, if we had started this project about a decade earlier, and we might have done that if they had not continued to insist we had to keep our AC&I (now PC&I) budget to about $1.1B, but we can no longer afford more delay to achieve a drawn out, risk free, acquisition process.

Mr. O’Rourke once again made the case for block buy vs a contract with options, contrasting the way the Coast Guard has contracted for vessels while the Navy has successfully used Block Buy and Multi-Year contracting for vessels much more complicated than those being procured by the Coast Guard.

The need for a National Maritime Strategy reflected a realization that the US ability to transport military reinforcements to a theater of conflict in American ships with American crews seems to be in jeopardy. We discussed this problem and what the Coast Guard could do about it here.

Rather than reference the exchange on the video above as I have done before, I will just highlight parts of the two source documents, the “Summary of Subject Matter” (a six page pdf) and Congressional Research Service Naval Expert, Ronald O’Rourke’s prepared statement.

Regarding the Polar Security Cutter (Heavy Polar Icebreaker or HPIB), from the summary of subject matter

The Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate is conducting a tailored technical readiness assessment to update the HPIB cost estimate with an estimated completion of June 30, 2019.

The Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate will update the program schedule within three months of the Detail Design and Construction contract award and before awarding construction, as appropriate, with an estimated completion date of September 30, 2019.

The Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate is conducting a tailored technical readiness assessment to analyze and determine schedule risks with an estimated completion of June 30, 2019.

Since presumably much of this work would be done by civilian acquisitions specialist, it is likely the work is falling behind because of the government shut down

Shift in Security Environment; New National Defense Strategy

A Maritime Strategy has not been issued. If it had it would likely need an update given that both the Administration and Geopolitical situation have changed.

Mobility Capabilities and Requirements Study 2018 (MCRS-18)

 DOD states that it started the study, which it refers to as the Mobility Capabilities and Requirements Study 2018 (MCRS-18), on March 8, 2018, and that it is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2018…A September 25, 2017, press report about MCRS-18 states that “Since the early 1990s, Pentagon mobility studies have consistently identified a requirement for about 20 million square feet of roll-on/roll-off capacity to quickly transport material in support of a contingency.” Mobility studies conducted from the 1990s until recently, however, were all done in the post-Cold War era, when U.S. military force planning focused to a large degree on potential crises and conflicts against regional military powers such as Iran and North Korea. Given the recent shift from the post-Cold War era to the new era of renewed great power competition and the resulting formal shift in U.S. military force planning toward a primary emphasis on potential challenges posed by China and Russia, it is not clear that MCRS-18 will leave the figure of 20 million square feet of roll-on/roll-off capacity unchanged. A change in this figure could have implications for the content of a new national maritime strategy.

We have seen no indication of movement on these documents.

Potential Shortfall of Navy Escorts and Possible Impacts on Mariners

 GAO notes MARAD’s September 2017 estimate of a potential shortage of U.S.-citizen mariners available to crew U.S.-owned reserve sealift ships during a crisis or conflict. The challenge of finding adequate numbers of appropriately trained mariners to crew DOD sealift ships in time of crisis or conflict is a longstanding issue, dating back at least to 1990, when mariners in their 50s, 60s, and 70s (and one aged 81), some brought out of retirement, were reportedly needed to help fill out the crews of DOD sealift ships that were activated for Operation Desert Shield (the initial phase of the U.S. reaction to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait). Problems in filling out ship crews reportedly contributed to delays in activating some RRF sealift ships to participate in the operation.  A potential shortage of U.S.-citizen mariners for manning DOD sealift ships in wartime has been a recurring matter of concern since then.

“Was I to die this moment, ‘Want of Frigates’ would be found stamped on my heart.”, Lord Nelson to Earl Spencer, 9 August 1798

Section 1072 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 (H.R. 2810/P.L. 11591 of December 12, 2017) requires the Navy to submit a report on its plans for defending combat logistics and strategic mobility forces—meaning Navy underway replenishment ships, RRF sealift ships, and MSC surge sealift ships—against potential wartime threats. The report is to include, among other things, a “description of the combat logistics and strategic mobility forces capacity, including additional combat logistics and strategic mobility forces, that may be required due to losses from attacks,” an “assessment of the ability and availability of United States naval forces to defend combat logistics and strategic mobility forces from the threats,” and a “description of specific capability gaps or risk areas in the ability or availability of United States naval forces to defend combat logistics and strategic mobility forces from the threats….”

This was brought sharply into focus in a surprisingly frank article in Defense News, dated October 10, 2018, “‘You’re On Your Own’: US Sealift Can’t Count on Navy Escorts in the Next Big War,”

My earlier post talks about what the Coast Guard could do to mitigate this shortfall, but the most significant step would be to bring back the Coast Guard ASW mission. Equipping eleven NSCs and 25 OPCs with ASW systems could make a huge difference.


A Coast Guard Funding Alternative–We are a Special Case

  • Our people are military, but unlike the rest off the military, they are unlikely to get paid January 15. 
  • We have an Icebreaker program that enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress and support from the President, but there is a good possibility it will not get funded this year because of a fight in congress over a totally unrelated program to build a wall along the southern border.
  • About half the Coast Guard’s missions are “Homeland Security” related, but about half are not.
  • Our pay system is different from all the other parts of the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Even the Auxiliary is shut down.

There is a movement to fix the pay problem, but that is only a small part of the problem.

The Coast Guard has been part of three different Departments. There has never been a perfect fit, because the scope of Coast Guard duties has always extended outside the strict confines of the mission of whatever Department it was part of. The Coast Guard combines military, public service, policing, and regulatory functions. The Coast Guard might have been spun off as an independent agency, but that would have required additional oversight in the form of a service secretary or commission and their staff. In many respects DHS is a good fit, but much of the Coast Guard operates outside the department’s focus and the Department’s budget process is a drag on Coast Guard funding.

The funding of the Coast Guard’s new Polar Security Cutter has brought this problem into focus. There is a general recognition that the new icebreaker is urgently needed. It (and the Coast Guard in general) enjoys bipartisan support in Congress and support from the President, but we there is a real possibility no DHS budget will be passed this year. There is too much conflict between the Executive and the House over the wall. We could go the whole fiscal year with nothing better than a series of continuing resolutions that would, as currently understood, preclude starting icebreaker construction.

Perhaps the solution is to separate out the Coast Guard budget for separate consideration. Combining the budget with other DHS agencies does not simplify the process, it introduces complications and conflict. A separate budget would provide some of the advantage of an independent agency, without the additional overhead of a separate service secretary and staff.

While not as comprehensive a solution, if the sense of the Congress was that the Polar Security Cutter program had already been initiated (small amounts for it was appropriated in FY2017 and 2018) or that the program is simply part of the larger Coast Guard recapitalization program already underway, then its likely there would be sufficient money in a continuing resolution (since the FY2018 Procurement, Construction, and Improvement budget was relatively large) to order the first of class and long lead time items for the second and the project could be started this fiscal year even if no DHS budget is passed.

“Pay Our Coast Guard” Act

If you haven’t seen it yet, there is a web site garnering support for reintroduction and passage of a bill that (with changes to bring it up to date) would allow continued payment of Coast Guard military active and reserve and civilian personnel, and contractors and death benefits.

Its easy to become cynical about the political process, but adding your name in support of this action certainly could not hurt.

“Government Shutdown Puts Coast Guard Heavy Icebreaker Program at Risk” –USNI

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice around the Russian-flagged tanker Renda 250 miles south of Nome Jan. 6, 2012. The Healy is the Coast Guard’s only currently operating polar icebreaker. The vessels are transiting through ice up to five-feet thick in this area. The 370-foot tanker Renda will have to go through more than 300 miles of sea ice to get to Nome, a city of about 3,500 people on the western Alaska coastline that did not get its last pre-winter fuel delivery because of a massive storm. If the delivery of diesel fuel and unleaded gasoline is not made, the city likely will run short of fuel supplies before another barge delivery can be made in spring. (AP Photo/US Coast Guard – Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis) NY112

The US Naval Institute has a report on the impact of the government shutdown on the Coast Guard and other government agencies, with a close look at what it probably means for the Polar Security Cutter (icebreaker) program.

“U.S. Coast Guard chief optimistic about icebreaker ship funding” –Reuters

USCGC Polar Sea

Reuters reports that the Commandant again used the phrase “guardedly optimistic” regarding FY2019 funding for the first new Polar Security Cutter when addressing a National Press Club event.

Perhaps key here is that the Congress will attempt to pass a budget before the Dec. 21 expiration of the continuing resolution.

Budget Watch, “Focus on defense budgets leaves Coast Guard high and dry” –The Hill

“The Hill” has a plea for passing the Coast Guard’s 2019 budget rather than relying on continuing resolutions.

It makes a good point that time will be short.

“Unfortunately, the Coast Guard budget did not get reported to the House until Sept. 12, 2018.  This is an issue because the House and Senate now are out until Nov. 13. After the election, they will have only 12 workdays before the CR ends on Dec. 7, 2018 (Pearl Harbor Day).”

Considering there is likely to be a lot of churn, particularly in the House, those twelve days are likely to very busy. Hopefully the DHS budget will get passed.