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Legislators criticize fleet upgrade

Coast Guard is told oversight must improve

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of a House investigative committee alleged yesterday that the Coast Guard's $24 billion program to modernize its aging fleet has produced only "a series of lemons."

Representative Henry A. Waxman, a Democrat from California, specifically targeted the "Deepwater" program, which he said has "cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars." He cited documents that his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee recently obtained about a 2005 Navy report on design flaws plaguing the 425-foot National Security Cutter, the flagship of the fleet.

The Navy briefing included slides with "a series of 'bottom line' warnings -- printed in red ink -- that concluded the ship would not last for its full 30-year life span," Waxman said.

The congressman alleged that people running the Deepwater program transmitted only an edited version of the Navy report to the Coast Guard commandant. He asserted the edited report deleted the Navy's "bottom line" conclusions about the problems.

"This took place just months before the Coast Guard renewed and extended the Deepwater contract," Waxman added at a hearing on the program.

Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad W. Allen, who was not commandant at the time, told the panel he was looking into the matter. A second Coast Guard official said warnings were included elsewhere in the briefing report.

Allen said his agency was implementing recommendations made by officials to strengthen the management of Deepwater. "This program must move forward, and it is my responsibility to get it right," Allen said.

Representative Stephen F. Lynch, a Democrat from South Boston, compared Deepwater to the Big Dig highway project, which has faced massive cost overruns. Lynch said that in both cases, the oversight, engineering, and construction roles had been merged -- with disastrous consequences.

"When this model is in place, we see colossal failures," said Lynch, a former ironworker and shipyard employee. "The government has contracted out oversight of contractors to contractors."

Panel members also voiced concerns that some mistakes made with Deepwater might be repeated with the Department of Homeland Security's multibillion dollar contract to secure the nation's borders.

Deepwater, the 25-year program to overhaul the nation's coastal fleet, is being run by Integrated Coast Guard Systems, a joint venture of defense contractors Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. It is the largest acquisition project in Coast Guard history.