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Coast Guard modernization program still faces challenges

Official says that large cutters are in poor condition and will need repair.

The Coast Guard received praise Wednesday from the Government Accountability Office and a House subcommittee for gaining greater control over its once-chaotic acquisition process, but its top officer voiced concern over the deteriorating conditions of his oldest cutters and the difficulty in rebuilding its acquisition management workforce.

Adm. Thad Allen cited improvements in the National Security Cutter program and rapid progress in obtaining two of its smaller patrol craft and new patrol aircraft. But, Allen continued, "we face tremendous fiscal challenges," need changes in U.S. or international law to help them deal with human smuggling and improvements in the nation's maritime security process to meet emerging threats, such as terrorists coming by sea. The Coast Guard commandant told the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee that his greatest concern was the poor condition of his large cutters, which are becoming increasingly expensive to maintain and are frequently out of service for repairs. "Time is a merciless thief that steals our readiness. ... New acquisitions cannot come on line quick enough."

House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Price, D-N.C., noted that Congress provided the Coast Guard $289.7 million more than the administration requested in fiscal 2009 and an additional $240 million in the stimulus package. Price indicated a willingness to consider additional boosts in funding once they see the fiscal 2010 budget. But the chairman expressed continued concern over the Coast Guard's effort to end its reliance on contractors to manage its massive Deepwater acquisition program.

John Hutton, GAO acquisition and sourcing management director, credited the Coast Guard for beginning to apply a "disciplined management process" to its acquisition programs, but noted that 16 percent of its acquisition positions remained vacant. Hutton said the Coast Guard's closer scrutiny of its Deepwater program revealed a $2.1 billion increase over the $24.2 billion base line cost set in 2007. Further increases were likely, he said.

Subcommittee members questioned Allen on how his service was responding to a variety of threats and environmental concerns, with Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., asking if the Coast Guard was doing anything to address the threat of terrorists using small boats to attack U.S. cities, as happened in Mumbai, India. Allen said that threat has been examined, but described a major gap in security because of the inability to monitor the thousands of small craft operating in U.S. coastal waters. At Lowey's request, Price said the panel would examine that issue in a future hearing. Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., asked why the Coast Guard was not using its small cutters to address the increasing threat of pirates off Somalia, to replace the much larger and more expensive to operate Navy warships. Allen said the Coast Guard's involvement "was significant, but not very visible" in support of the Navy, but lacked the "capacity" to put its overworked cutters into the anti-piracy effort.