Correction to This Article
A Dec. 8 article about the Coast Guard¿s fleet-modernization program incorrectly referred to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) as the incoming Senate minority leader. He will be the minority whip.

Costly Fleet Update Falters

By Renae Merle and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 8, 2006

A multibillion-dollar effort to modernize the Coast Guard's fleet has suffered delays, cost increases, design flaws and, most recently, the idling of eight 123-foot patrol boats that were found to be not seaworthy after an $88 million refurbishment.

The sidelining of eight of 10 Miami-based cutters worsens a patrol-boat crisis while the Coast Guard is preparing for an exodus of Cubans that could happen when dictator Fidel Castro is no longer in power, Coast Guard leaders acknowledge.

More broadly, congressional critics warn that early mistakes in the 25-year modernization program, called Deepwater -- the Coast Guard's largest contract ever -- are hobbling the service's transformation into a front-line homeland security force.

With the failure of the retrofitting program, eight of 49 boats in the service's workhorse fleet of Island-class patrol boats are out of action. Coast Guard leaders reported last year that only 25 percent of the aging cutters were fully "mission capable," because of maintenance problems and deployment of some boats to Iraq. In reports submitted to Congress, the Coast Guard projected that the fleet would be able to log about 80 percent of its targeted 98,200 operational hours a year.

Meanwhile, a Coast Guard plan to fill the gap by accelerating development of its next-generation cutter by 10 years has stalled because of technical problems.

House members tried to cut $121 million of the $1.1 billion appropriated this year for the $24 billion Deepwater modernization program, but the attempt was defeated by the program's defenders in the Senate. Citing plans for some of the replacement cutters to be built in Mississippi, critics said some decision making was influenced by Coast Guard attempts to curry favor with Mississippi GOP senators Thad Cochran, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Trent Lott, the incoming minority whip.

The program's failures are spelled out in a series of Government Accountability Office and Department of Homeland Security inspector general's reports and in congressional testimony, which point to the leeway given to the program's contractors, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. Through their joint venture, Integrated Coast Guard Systems, the companies declined to comment, referring all questions to the Coast Guard.

But congressional critics are also raising fresh complaints of rising costs and failed ships in one of the largest national security contracts awarded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"Deepwater is a mess. Over the last five years the Coast Guard procurement has been riddled with problems," said Rep. David W. Obey (D-Wis.), incoming chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "Coast Guard needs to put in place a plan to fix this problem immediately."

"The big problem here is the boat doesn't work," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), outgoing chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security. "The people who manufactured these boats are going to have responsibility for their failure. . . . Someone's got to figure out who's responsible."

The Coast Guard has taken criticism of the program seriously and made significant improvements in the past few years, said Rear Adm. Gary Blore, head of the modernization program, which also includes Coast Guard aircraft. For example, the project that led to the sidelined patrol boats was approved without an independent review, which he said would not happen today.

"There is never a good time to not have enough patrol boats," Blore said. "I just regret that we haven't delivered an asset from when those management reforms were put in place."

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