GAO report: Coast Guard maintenance problems are worsening

A Coast Guard HC-130 taxis past the control tower at Kodiak State Airport Saturday afternoon, Sept. 22, 2012. The U.S. Senate on Saturday passed the Coast Guard's 2012 funding bill. The bill now goes to a conference committee to be reconciled with a bill passed by the House. (James Brooks photo)

Early Saturday morning, the US Senate approved a bill to fund the Coast Guard for the next three fiscal years. The bill, which allocates $7 billion per year to the Coast Guard, now heads to a conference committee to be combined with a similar House bill.

While the bills ensure the Coast Guard’s near-term stability, a new report from the Government Accountability Office says the Coast Guard’s long-term problems are growing worse.

On Thursday, the GAO report concluded the Coast Guard has been “overly optimistic” about the performance of its older ships.

According to the GAO, the Coast Guard has been unable to match performance goals that it set for itself over the past six years. The report states that from 2005 through 2011, high-endurance cutters like the Kodiak-based Munro were free of major problems only 44 percent of the time. Medium-endurance ships like the Kodiak-based Alex Haley were free of major problems only 72 percent of the time. The goal for both classes of ships was 74 percent.

“Legacy vessels’ critical operating systems—such as main diesel engines—have been increasingly prone to mission-degrading casualties. In addition, Coast Guard senior maintenance officials and vessel crew members we interviewed noted increased maintenance challenges because of the advanced age of the legacy vessels,” the report states.

The problems affecting the Coast Guard’s fleet — most of which dates to the 1960s and 1970s — are not new.

Coast Guard commandant Adm. Robert Papp has repeatedly said he is aware of the problems and is overseeing the construction of new ships to replace current models.

In an August visit to Kodiak, Papp said current plans call for Kodiak to receive two new medium-endurance Offshore Patrol Cutters to replace the Alex Haley and Munro.

A Thursday meeting of the House’s Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee identified a significant problem with that replacement strategy — the Coast Guard is getting rid of its old ships faster than it is building new ones.

The first OPC is not expected to roll out of the shipyard until 2020. One new OPC will be built each year until 2022, then two will be built per year through 2033.

While the Coast Guard is renovating its older medium-endurance cutters, those renovations will not last long enough for new ships to come online.

Under the most optimistic estimates, the renovations give the older ships an additional 15 years of life. It will take 21 years to build enough OPCs to replace the older ships.

That gap in medium-endurance capabilities does not include another significant problem, this with the Coast Guard’s advanced National Security Cutters, its largest and newest ships.

The Coast Guard had planned eight NSCs to replace 12 older high-endurance cutters that patrol places like the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean.

Thanks to budget cuts, the seventh and eighth NSCs no longer appear in Coast Guard budgeting documents. In the meantime, maintenance problems with the older high-endurance ships are adding up. “The Coast Guard has noted that the failure of the (high-endurance cutter) fleet to fulfill planned cutter days … has reduced the service’s ability to conduct operations in Alaska,” state briefing documents for Thursday’s House subcommittee hearing.

In testimony at that hearing, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Ronald Rabago, head of the service’s engineering and logistics arm, stated the problem simply. The more the Coast Guard spends to maintain its current ships, the less money it has to build new ones.

“(T)he problem remains that as we are forced to pour more money into maintaining rapidly failing legacy assets, there is less available for replacement assets, and as we put off the acquisition of new assets, we only increase the strain on legacy assets,” LoBiondo said. “While the Coast Guard has taken steps to improve the conditions of its legacy fleet and the efficiency of its maintenance command, more needs to be done.”

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