Coast Guard modernization program could move faster, contractor says

The Coast Guard's long-term modernization program known as Deepwater could be dramatically accelerated from the current 25-year schedule if adequate funding is provided, contract officials said earlier this week.

The program, aimed at upgrading aging equipment used more than 50 miles offshore, has drawn criticism almost since its inception in the late 1990s, for its lengthy time frame and unwieldy budget. A joint venture between Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. called Integrated Coast Guard Systems in June 2002 won a $17 billion, 20-year contract to manage the program, but the time frame has since grown to 25 years.

"We would welcome an acceleration, and it would achieve more economical production rates," said Leo Mackay, president of ICGS, during a presentation to the press on Monday. He declined to say exactly how much faster the program could be completed, deferring to existing studies and noting that funding is the main limiting factor.

"Deepwater is a state-of-the-shelf program, not a state-of-the-art program," Mackay said. The manufacture of assets depends on the pace of funding and production rather than technological innovation, he said, noting that the one exception lies in vertical unmanned aerial vehicles, which face additional design and regulatory hurdles.

One of the program's key accomplishments so far has been the 11-year acceleration of plans to develop a fast response cutter, a multipurpose vessel designed to replace the Coast Guard's aging 110-foot patrol boats, Mackay said.

The Coast Guard awarded the initial Deepwater contract based on pre-9/11 needs assessments, and has since seen a significant increase in counterterrorism responsibilities. An April 2004 report by the RAND Corp., a nonpartisan research organization based in Santa Monica, Calif., concluded that an acceleration of the program, combined with the purchase of more assets, would help the Coast Guard meet this expanded mission.

Last spring, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., called for Deepwater to be completed in as little as 10 years. In suggesting the accelerated schedule, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee leaders argued that the "nation simply cannot afford to wait until 2024 or later" for more effective and reliable assets.

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