Document Alert: Cutter Procurement–Another Report to Congress

Once again, the Congressional Research Service’s Ronald O’Rourke has revised his “Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress” with the new edition issued April 15. This has got to be a hot topic because previous revisions were issued March 22, January 27, and December 14, 2015. That is four revisions in four months, on average every six weeks, but the latest is only 24 days after the previous edition. I have begun to sense, we may have turned a corner. The tone of the reports has changed over these four months, from, how long will it take us to reach the “Program of Record” (POR), to consideration of, if we should perhaps go beyond the POR.

The NSC, OPC, and FRC programs pose several issues for Congress, including the following:

“whether to fund the acquisition of a 10th NSC in FY2017;

“whether to fund the acquisition of four FRCs in FY2017, as requested, or some other number, such as six, which was the number projected for FY2017 under the Coast Guard’s FY2016 budget submission;

“whether to use annual or multiyear contracting for procuring FRCs;

“whether to use annual or multiyear contracting for procuring OPCs;

“planned procurement quantities for NSCs, OPCS, and FRCs;

“the cost, design, and acquisition strategy for the OPC;

“initial testing of the NSC; and

“rotational crewing of the NSC.”

The latest revision includes three substantial Appendices:

  • Appendix A. Planned NSC, OPC, and FRC Procurement Quantities (pp 17-22)
  • Appendix B. Funding Levels in AC&I Account (pp 23-26)
  • Appendix C. Additional Information on Status and Execution of NSC, OPC, and FRC Programs from March 2016 GAO Report (pp 27-34)

Appendix C is entirely new and appears to have been the reason for the revision.

Appendix A (p. 17-22) is a fairly detailed discussion of the results of the Fleet Mix Study and asks why we so seldom hear that the program of record is not enough to assure the Coast Guard to successfully accomplish its assigned missions.

The Fleet Mix Study was made public in 2012 long after its completion in 2009. It is due for a reexamination and the Commandant has said another will be done. When that happens, we seriously need to look at more than just more of the same assets. We need to look at additional technology, equipment, and weapons that might allow us to accomplish these missions without a major increase in personnel.

Looking at “Table A-3. Force Mixes and Mission Performance Gaps” (document page 18) I would note that if we get to Fleet Mix Analysis Phase 1 (FMA-1, an increase over the POR including 9 Bertholf class NSCs, 32 OPCs and 63 Webber Class FRCs, for a total of 104 vessels), we will have addressed all the “Very High Risk Gaps” found in the Fleet Mix Study that included SAR capability, “Defense Readiness Capacity,” and “Counter Drug capacity.” What will remain are “High” or lower risks in Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security (PWCS) and Living Marine Resources (LMR), and a low to very low risk to the Alien Migrant Interdiction Operations (AMIO) mission. This total of more than 40 NSCs and OPCs certainly should not be out of the question, after all the Coast Guard has included over 40 ships larger than a thousand tons for the last several decades.

Still, I would note that, no matter how many ships we have, the Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security (PWCS) mission will always be at risk, unless weapons are available to quickly and reliably stop terrorists’ exploitation of a larger merchant vessel to make an attack. Guns alone are simply not up to the task. I have identified two weapons that might address this threat, (1) equipping our WPCs and possibly WPBs with light weight torpedoes that target a ships propellers or (2) equipping our larger ships with the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) which might allow our larger cutter to effectively support our smaller cutters and respond to an attack, even if the large cutter 200 miles from the targeted port. Either would also make our ships much more capable of making a meaningful contribution to Defense Readiness.

Document Alert–Coast Guard Cutter Procurement

USNI news service has posted a copy of the Congressional Research Services latest take on the Coast Guard Vessel recapitalization program, “Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress.”  As usual their “Specialist in Naval Affairs,” Ronald O’Rourke, has done an excellent job and by simply stating the facts has made a strong case for recapitalization.

There are some criticisms implicit in the recitation of events thus far. I think it is apparent that the Crew Rotation Concept is proving an embarrassment, in that while we have now had three operational “National Security Cutters” for some time, there has been no attempt to validate the concept, and no attempt to repudiate this relic of the Deepwater program. The concept is a non-starter we have discussed several times. Ships are not cars in a motorpool. You cannot swap entire crews and expect good results. Time to piss or get off the pot. This bad news is not going to get better with age.

Limited progress on UAVs was also discussed.

CG making progress in reducing acquisition risks for OPCs–DHS IG


Photo: Eastern’s proposed Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) concept. One of three shipyards contending for the contract

FierceHomelandSecurity is reporting,

“An internal audit says that the Coast Guard is making progress in reducing acquisition risks of more than two dozen offshore patrol cutters, but it’s still too early to tell whether the service has fully implemented two risk mitigation recommendations that were previously made by the inspector general.

“One recommendation directs the Coast Guard to make sure it’s achieved a level of “design maturity” in its engineering plans, meaning that the designs are fully developed prior to construction.

“The other instructs the service to ensure that “low-rate initial production” – that is producing enough quantities of cutters to test, evaluate and approve before full production – are supported by an operational assessment. This assessment evaluates proposed cutter designs against operational requirements and identifies risks.

The Commandant has said they have looked so closely at the designs that they questioned the number of water fountains (scuttlebutts for the sailors). That sounds like design maturity, but then the purpose was to save money, not to ensure operational competence. I would hope we have done that as well. We are certainly taking long enough to make sure the designs are mature.

I would take issue with the statement, “Under a two-phase strategy, the service plans to acquire 25 OPCs to replace an equal number of medium endurance cutters.” These 25 ships are intended to replace 32 WMECs, four of which have already been decommissioned, 13 270s, 16 210s, the Alex Haley, Acushnet, and Storis. In 2000 we had 44 large cruising cutters; if the program of record is fully implemented we will have only 33. The misguided “Crew Rotation Concept” which, even if it works, will not give us the same number of ship days away from home port as 44 ships, even if we have to pay for 44 crews, is biting us. (Note, it appears to me this statement was made by FierceHomelandSecurity rather than as part of the IG report.)

The DHS IG report referred to, regarding the OPCs, is this document, “Verification Review of U. S. Coast Guard’s Acquisition of the Sentinel Class Fast Response Cutter (OIG-12-68),” that can be accessed through the FierceHomelandSecurity post.

The alarming aspect of this, is the insistence on “low rate production” until the design is tested. It seems we have been planning low rate production all along, with only one ship per year to be funded for the first three years, and no more than two per year after that, meaning with production of 25 ships, we will not see the last ship delivered until 2035. That sounds pretty low rate to me.

If we fund as expected (one per year for three years, then two per year), there will be a shift to funding two ships per year before the first ship has completed testing. Is two ships per year a high rate which the IG might oppose? Is there any possibility that after testing we might be able to build OPCs at a rate higher than two per year (as we really should)?

I have still heard no suggestion that the Coast Guard will take advantage of the multi-year/block buy procurement that Congress has authorized for the OPC, nor have they requested authority for Multi-Year procurement of the Webber class WPCs which certainly qualify as a mature and tested program.

There was a time when the Coast Guard took delivery of 28 ships in nine years.  It really looks like the we are going to need similar surge in the future to prevent a collapse of our capabilities.

Timely Actions Needed to Address Risks in Using Rotational Crews–GAO

Waesche Carat 2012

The GAO has recently issued a report, “Coast Guard, Timely Actions Needed to Address Risks in Using Rotational Crews” (pdf) which discusses the “Crew Rotation Concept” (CRC) which has been part of the proposed National Security Cutter (NSC) program for at least a decade, but never tested. I believe there has also been discussion of using it on the Offshore Patrol Cutter as well.

This is perhaps the last, worst vestige of the Deep Water program.

First there is this explanation of the expectations of the plan from an Acquisitions Directorate web page that has since been taken down.

“Initially, the Coast Guard will employ four crews for three NSCs at a single homeport, rotating the cutters among the crews to limit crew PERSTEMPO to 185 days while maintaining each cutter’s operational tempo (OPTEMPO) at 230 days. The three-cutter, four-crew prototype will be evaluated in 2009 through an operational testing-and-evaluation process. Policy and procedures for CRC are based on the lessons learned by the Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy, as well as consideration of the recommendations made by auditors from the Government Accountability Office.”

Please forgive me for quoting myself but I feel the need to repeat some calculations from a post from 2010.

First assuming the projections are correct, we are replacing 12 ships which would provide 2,220 operating days with eight ships that will provide at best 1,840 so we are already two ships short.

Then you will also note that the presumption is that the ships will be operated in groups of three from the same home port, but there are only eight ships planned, meaning there will be a rump group of two somewhere. Will they be operated by three crews or by a single crew per ship?

What we hope to save here is acquisition cost, because the operating costs per op day cannot be lowered by this strategy and will actually be higher. I don’t know the projected life cycle costs for the National Security cutters, but in general, I’ve heard that the acquisition costs for similar systems is about 15% of the life cycle cost. Fuel and personnel costs are the real driver. Fuel costs should be the same per op day. Personnel costs will actually be higher, since each crew under the multi-crewing concept will only provide 172.5 op days instead of 185, so personnel costs will be 7.25% higher.

In addition, because the ship will only be in port 135 days a year instead of 180, there will be fewer opportunities for the crew to make repairs. These repairs, normally done by the crew, will have to be done by contractors at additional costs.

I would also note that the acquisition costs we hope to save actually decline as we add more ships. Four additional units are likely to cost far less on the average than the first 8. There is also the long term value of having four additional ships in hand if the country should need them in the future.

Frankly I don’t think we will see any significant savings from this manning approach and it may actually cost us in the long run.

If a truly convincing argument can be made for the concept, I would like to see it. And if the argument involves lower overhead because we get more “mission” op days compared to RefTra day, remember the reason we go, is to train the crews, not the ships, so every crew will needs to go.

As I noted above three into eight does not make for three ship groups. At that time, I thought it would be two ports with three ships and one with two, but in fact, apparently the intention is now two in Charleston, two in Honolulu, and four in Alameda, so it is three ships nowhere.

I am a little surprised the testing has not already started. After all we have had three ships in Alameda for three years now.

As far as I can tell, rotating multiple crews among multiple ships has never worked out. More here and here. We have certainly had the opportunity to test the concept on simpler platforms, but it has yet to be attempted in earnest. Frankly I think everyone knows this is not going to work, but they have just been pushing facing the embarrassing truth off into the future.

There may be viable alternatives to swapping out entire crews. In fact, apparently crews of existing NSCs have been augmented to allow them to provide 210 days away from Homeport. Actually nine augmented ships, U/W 210 days a year, would provide more availability (1890 days) than eight multi-crewed ships U/W 230 days a year (1840 days) but they would still not reach the level provided by twelve un-augmented ships (2220 days).

Unlike wine, bad news does not get better with age. It is time to bit the bullet. Try CRC or find an alternative. If it doesn’t work, well it was really someone else’s idea after all.