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Coast Guard upgrade goes slow

Only 2 new ships added in 10 years

By Alicia A. Caldwell
Associated Press / August 22, 2011

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PASCAGOULA, Miss. - Nearly a decade into the 25-year, $24.2 billion overhaul intended to add or upgrade more than 250 vessels to the Coast Guard’s aging fleet, it has two new ships to show after spending more than $7 billion.

Now it faces an uphill battle persuading a budget-conscious Congress to keep pouring money into a project plagued by management and cost problems.

“Congress wants to work with the Coast Guard to meet their needs for its myriad missions but will not simply supply a blank check,’’ said Representative Frank LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard.

By now, the Coast Guard was supposed to have at least eight new ships - four 418-foot national security cutters and four 154-foot cutters. Instead, it has only two of the largest ships already in use, with two ships more on the way.

LoBiondo and others in Congress, including Representative Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, have repeatedly questioned the progress and scope of the fleet overhaul.

Government auditors have concluded that the Coast Guard still does not know the answers.

The two completed ships and two more under production have cost about $2 billion. Much of the remaining $5 billion has been spent on new contracts for at least 10 more ships and improvements to more than two dozen older ships. The Coast Guard also used some of the money to buy and upgrade aircraft, though vessels were the program’s primary focus.

The modernization effort that began in earnest in 2002 was designed to replace ships from the World War II, Korea, and Vietnam eras. But within the first year, as Congress started to dole out billions of dollars for new-found homeland security concerns after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Coast Guard officials realized their blueprint was not exactly what was needed.

“I’ll be the first to admit, we weren’t prepared to start spending this money and supervising a project this big,’’ said Robert Papp, the Coast Guard commandant.

Budget-cutting in the 1990s had left the service with few experts on buying new ships and other equipment. So the Coast Guard turned the project over to a joint venture between Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin. Huntington Ingalls Industries, a Northrup Grumman spinoff that is building Coast Guard ships, referred all questions about the program to the Coast Guard.

Keith Little, a Lockheed spokesman, said the company is fulfilling existing contracts and has completed upgrades for several aircraft, along with building several others.

The program, known as Deepwater, appeared in trouble almost from the beginning. Early government audits criticized Coast Guard officials for a lack of oversight, which invariably led to early delays and cost increases.

“In essence, the contractors were overseeing themselves,’’ said Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat.

Hurricanes, including Katrina in 2005, led to delays at the Pascagoula, Miss., shipyard where many new ships are being built.

In the early 2000s, the Coast Guard awarded a contract to Bollinger Shipyards Inc. to convert its 110-foot patrol boats to 123-foot vessels. Starting with eight ships, the contractor attached new steel to extend the hulls of the ships by 13 feet. The results were disastrous.

“What we found out was when you put new steel on old steel, it flexes,’’ Papp said. “Those patrol boats were unusable afterward, and there was a chance of a catastrophic failure.’’

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