WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, chaired by U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), held a hearing yesterday to examine the status and sustainability of the U.S. Coast Guard’s acquisition program and plans for recapitalizing its aging vessels, aircraft, and communication systems.
Rep. LoBiondo had some pointed words in his hearing statement: “I’m very concerned about the recent discovery that Coast Guard Cutter Stratton, the third and newest National Security Cutter, is in need of an emergency dry dock to fix leaky hull plating,” he said. “I know there is an investigation into what caused this steel to fail, but it is extremely troubling to see the newest ship in the fleet, and the most expensive cutter in Coast Guard history, needing emergency repairs.
“I am also upset to hear there is a shortage of spares for the maritime patrol aircraft,” he continued. “Due to poor planning and budgetary shortsightedness, the brand new fleet of MPAs will face flight hour restrictions for the foreseeable future, further exacerbating the MPA patrol hour gap.”
Vice Admiral John Currier defended the Coast Guard’s program, however, saying that, “our major cutter fleet is obsolete” and is suffering “mission-degrading casualties.”
“We need to replace these assets now,” he said, while emphasizing that the Coast Guard has been able to keep costs consistent from the third Fast Response Cutter through the fifth, and even that the sixth has been “awarded at a lower price than number five.”
Responding specifically to concerns about the Stratton, he said the Coast Guard “acted quickly when a problem was discovered on the Stratton” and “she will put to seas ready to perform all missions in short order.”
Further, Currier said, “I want to be crystal clear that this is not a class-wide issue.” He speculated it might a quality of steel issue, or related to a localized repair that was done due a bump with a pier before commissioning. Perhaps the welding was done incorrectly. “We don’t have indications this was a quality issue on the build of the ship,” he assured the committee, under questioning.
He also assured the committee that the Coast Guard “can achieve our recapitalization goals” with the currently constructed 2013-2017 budget.
Rep. LaBiondo is not so sure: “The Administration’s decision to cut the Service’s acquisition budget by 19 percent over the current year has left it scrambling to reprioritize limited funding,” he said, “forcing the termination of critical acquisition programs, and the reduction in vital capabilities for certain assets. Trying to squeeze a $2.5 billion annual need into $1.2 billion annual program is not going to work. Tradeoffs will undermine the Service’s mission effectiveness and costs will increase in the out years.”