UPDATE: National Security Cutter marred by fatigue cracks

Published 29 January 2007

DHS says Coast Guard failed properly to oversee the $24 billion project; Deepwater program comes under increasing scrutiny; costs double while sea life decreases 20 percent; safety issues observed three years ago

More details are available now on DHS’s decision to suspend production of the National Security Cutter — the $24 billion project to develop a ship capable of managing littoral operations — and they are not encouraging. In our previous report we stressed cost overruns, but as it turns out, the technical problems are far more worrisome. According to technical experts, the ship design would likely result in “fatigue cracks” — small, but not insignificant problems that would continuously require expensive maintenence and reduce the craft’s service life. As a result, the Washington Post reported, “the cost of the first two ships will roughly double while their expected service life will likely be cut by 20 percent.”

Not that these design problems are newly discovered. In fact, Coast Guard experts noted them as early as 2002, noting that the “fatigue service lives” of several critical elements were expected to be less than three years. Then, in 2004, an assistant commandant informed his superiors that “several of these problems compromise the safety and viability of the hull.” As a result, the Coast Guard decided that the ships could operate at sea for only 180 days per year — far fewer than the 230 days required in the contract. All told, the combined cost of the first two ships — one by Lockheed Martin and the other by Northrop Grumman — has increased from $517 million to $775 million, not including the cost of addressing the design flaws or another $302 million for “re-pricing of all work associated with the production and deployment” of the first two ships, DHS reported.

The failure of the National Security Cutter to stay on tracks is just the latest problem to result from the Deepwater program, a comprehensive modernization of Coast Guard capabilities. Deepwater, in fact, was singled out in a July House Government Reform Committee report as marred by “significant overcharges, wasteful spending, or mismanagement.” In December, for instance, the Coast Guard sidelined eight Miami-based 123-foot cutters after finding that they were not seaworthy. The problems, it seems, are in large part bureucratic. The agency lacks the “appropriate workforce, business processes, and management controls for executing a major acquisition program,” said DHS in a recent report. “The Coast Guard is still trying to come from behind and create the organization needed to manage the program.”

-read more in Renae Merle and Spencer Hsu’s Washington Post  report