Progress (or lack of it) on the National Security Cutters

Over at I got into an off topic discussion of the NSC deliveries, when another poster, “RhodeIslander,” asked me why the contract for the for the fourth  National Security Cutter had not been awarded.

He shared this with me,
“Chuck, one of my old co-workers down in Mississippi sent me an interesting Build Schedule for NSC. Evidently this is only for… (STRATTON) 752 which is next to be finished off for USCG.

“At the moment of Contract start, there begins a 4 year cycle for WMSL-752:

“FIRST YEAR: Pre-fab begins down in Mississippi yard. While down in Washington D.C. the USCG orders long lead time stuff, like engines, generators, gears, etc. After about 2 months, “Start Fabrication” commences. And scattered all around the large Mississippi shipyard, many various modules are being constructed.

“SECOND YEAR: Keep is “laid” which now-a-days means the shipyard starts moving all those modules slowly down to the waterfront and welds them all together. This erection process goes fairly quickly and the cutter is all put together outwardly in less than 7 months. Production continues inside the cutter while on land.

“THIRD YEAR: The cutter is “launched” with really means “float off” in modern yards like the one in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Production continues in the water, electrical cables and Command and Control soon start testing. Then diesels engines get lite off, followed by generators and gas turbine.

“FOURTH YEAR: Sea Trials and Dockyard Trials are conducted at the beginning of Year #4, and the cutter is soon delivered to the Coast Guard. The crew moves onboard, trains up, does a few short underway periods. The Mississippi shipyard corrects some deficiencies and finally the new cutter sails away for California. Once in their permanent homeport, the ship gets a short post shakedown overhaul period, where the Mississippi Northrop Grumman yard does Warranty work. At the very end of the fourth year, the Warranty period expires and the Cutter is no longer ever associated with DEEPWATER INC. again.”

“RhodeIslander” was disappointed in the time required from award to completion. My concern was more that we were falling behind on even a one per year delivery schedule. If we awarded a contract every year and we were using the four year cycle as a routine, you would think there would be four or at least three ships in the pipeline. That does not seem to be happening.

Acquisition directorate says “The U.S. Coast Guard commissioned the second National Security Cutter, Waesche (WMSL 751), on May 7, 2010. Stratton (WMSL 752) was christened on July 23, 2010 and is 59% complete.”

It appears that the NSC2 is in the last 2 months of the cycle (although it has lasted more than four years) and that NSC3 is in the third year. This means we have more than a two year gap (instead of only one year).

Here are some of the milestones for the first three ships. All three were nominally ordered in 2001 and were/are being built at Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, Pascagoula, Mississippi:

NSC 1: Bertholf
Laid down:     March 29, 2005
Launched:     September 29, 2006
Christened:     November 11, 2006
Commissioned:     August 4, 2008
Formally Accepted: May 8, 2009

NSC 2: Waesche
Laid down:     September 11, 2006
Launched:     July 12, 2008
Delivered:   Nov. 6, 2009
Commissioned:     May 7, 2010

NSC 3: Dorothy C. Stratton
Contract awarded: Aug. 8, 2007
Laid down:     July 20, 2009
Christened:     July 23, 2010

From Wikipedia, “‘On 7 July 2009, the Government Accountability Office reported that delays in the NSC program are likely to result in “the loss of thousands of cutter operational days for conducting missions through 2017.’ The GAO also that month reported that problems in the NSC program have delayed the OPC program by five years.”

Frankly I think we will continue to see the ripples of this disaster until at least 2027 when it looks like the last OPC might be finished. By that time the newest 270 will be 39 years old. When the youngest 210 is replaced it will likely be at least 54 years old. And if the Acushnet can last until she is replaced by the first OPC she will be 75 years old.  (While the average Navy ship  is something like 14 years old.)

Here is RhodeIslander’s latest comment, “…WAESCHE NSC-2 is evidently in California getting her post delivery overhaul and last of warranty. Stratton is supposed to Deliver towards end of next summer. That means NSC-4 Hamilton, if and when they ever commence her, will break up the “assembly line” of NATIONAL SECURITY CUTTERS that has finally started to look pretty good down at the Pascagoula yard. So NSC-4 will gap and some expertise will be lost forever, early retirement, taking jobs on other Navy ships, moving to the offshore oil well industry, etc. Even worse than breaking up the “assembly line”, will be the big gap between delivery of NSC-3 and NSC-4 to USCG…Too bad that NSC-4 is not already under construction, and finishing her first year, and beginning to start KEEL LAYING. It’s both a mystery and a shame for the Coast Guard sailors on those ancient High Endurance cutters.”

What really bothers me is that I don’t see that there is any attempt to play catch-up on the part of the Administration, the Congress, or the Coast Guard.  I hope I’m wrong, but at the rate we are going, the eighth NSC will not be operational for at least nine years and possibly longer, meaning the newest 378 will be at least 47 years old when it is replaced. We really ought to be awarding a multi-year contract and building more than one ship a year. If we want to award contracts for the OPCs in FY2014 and we don’t want to have to award a contract for NSC(s) in the same FY, it means that we will need to contract for NSCs 5-8 in FY 2012/2013. (Perhaps more evidence we ought to be looking at getting other ships to fill the gap.)

I know Acquisition Directorate is still getting their feet on the ground, and they are short of people, but I hope we will recognize the urgency and that we will get some support from the Administration and Congress. We have to do a lot better than we have so far.