Lawmakers fault changes in Coast Guard acquisition program

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, laments that the agency has stretched the time frame for completing the Deepwater program to as long as 25 years.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Wednesday the Homeland Security Department's recent report on the Coast Guard's $20 billion Integrated Deepwater Program does not allow enough transparency, accountability or predictability in the years ahead for its recapitalization effort.

"The report does not clearly describe how much funding will be requested by the administration to support Deepwater in future budgets; it only provides how much each asset will cost in FY02 dollars. Most disturbing, the report increases the amount of time to complete the Deepwater program to 20 to 25 years," Collins said in an interview.

Collins and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., this week called the report "incomplete" and criticized it for failing to provide for Deepwater's completion.

"The DHS report only provides a five-year capital investment plan, rather than a plan for the completion of the Deepwater program as required. The report also falls short of providing a clear annual budget forecast, which prevents a true evaluation of the department's intent and commitment to completing the program," the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

The report proposes modifying the program's original mix of ships, helicopters and aircraft to incorporate post-Sept. 11 capabilities, including an advanced command-and-control network, automated weapons systems, force protection, chemical, biological and radiological detection and defense. The plan adds more C-130J cargo aircraft and reduces the number of Maritime Patrol Aircraft. It also would retain and upgrade older aviation systems such as the Lockheed Martin C-130s, Sikorksy HH-60 Jayhawks and HH-65 Dolphins.

Collins said the committee anticipates receiving a briefing on the proposed plan "as soon as possible." Collins said she intends to push efforts to accelerate modernization of the Coast Guard fleet.

In a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten, Collins and Lieberman asked Bolten to consider an accelerated 10-year schedule for Deepwater, arguing that "the nation simply cannot afford to wait until 2024 or later" for more effective and reliable assets.

Lieberman and Collins also said the Homeland Security report does not account for the Coast Guard's priorities list sent to Congress, which stated it needed $700 million more in fiscal 2006 for the program and to sustain its aging fleet. The department is asking Congress for $6.9 billion in funding for fiscal 2006, up 11 percent from fiscal 2005.

In a hearing earlier this month, Coast Guard Adm. Thomas Collins told the House Appropriations Committee that the older aircraft, cutters and helicopters are experiencing system failures at increasing rates. For example, the HH-65 helicopter experienced in-flight power losses at a rate of 329 mishaps per 100,000 flight hours in fiscal 2004, up from 63 a year earlier, he said.

Transportation and Infrastructure Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Frank Lobiondo, R-N.J.,has scheduled an April 20 hearing on the DHS plan. An aide said the lawmaker has concerns about the timeline proposed for Deepwater since Coast Guard assets are failing and a higher rate than expected.