Report: Speedier fleet upgrade would help Coast Guard

The Coast Guard would benefit from speeding up an upgrade of its aging fleet, according to a new report from an independent think tank.

By completing the Deepwater acquisition program 5 to 10 years ahead of schedule, the Coast Guard would better position itself to meet expanded homeland security responsibilities, according to the RAND Corp., a nonpartisan research organization based in Santa Monica, Calif. The accelerated timetable can be achieved and would not increase the total cost of the project, the think tank reported.

If the Coast Guard finished Deepwater--a multibillion-dollar project to replace or overhaul roughly 100 cutters and 200 aircraft--in 10 or 15 years rather than 20, it would "benefit sooner from the both the improved efficiency of the replacement assets and from lower operating and support costs," RAND found. The Coast Guard would start seeing these benefits as soon as 2006.

The total number of hours that cutters could spend on missions would increase by 12 percent if the Coast Guard accelerated Deepwater by 5 years, and would rise by 15 percent if the agency finished the program in 10 years, the report concluded.

Equipment manufacturers would be able to meet either of the faster timetables, researchers concluded. In some cases, the Coast Guard could order production to start sooner than originally planned. In others, production could proceed at a faster pace.

Under either the 10-year or 15-year accelerated timetable, the Coast Guard could expect to pay more each year for acquisition and operating and support costs, RAND found. But the project's total price tag would remain unchanged.

RAND declined to offer advice on which timetable is preferable, but noted: "It stands to reason that, because the 15-year schedule would require a less rapid introduction of new equipment, it might prove to be a less risky course of action."

Regardless of the schedule on which Deepwater proceeds, the effort will not meet all of the Coast Guard's acquisition needs, RAND noted. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the agency has taken on new types of work after shifting to the Homeland Security Department.

"The assets slated to be acquired through Deepwater would be inadequate to meet the Coast Guard's traditional mission and emerging responsibilities," the report said. To adequately fulfill its new role, the Coast Guard would need to at least double the assets it plans to acquire, RAND found. For example, Deepwater will only provide the Coast Guard with two-thirds of the aircraft it should have, the report said.

The Coast Guard should consider buying twice as many cutters, unmanned air vehicles and multimission helicopters as planned in Deepwater, the report recommended. This strategy would cost about $8.5 billion more than the current plan, but would yield benefits as soon as 2005 and would increase the Coast Guard's ability to monitor larger spans of water, RAND found. In addition, the Coast Guard should think about developing new technology, rather than simply updating or replacing existing equipment, the report suggested. For example, the agency could use offshore rigs to monitor some areas typically patrolled by cutters.

RAND's report draws on data provided by the Coast Guard, manufacturers and Integrated Coast Guard Systems-a Lockheed Martin-Northrop Grumman joint venture with a contract to help design, build and maintain the Deepwater fleet. The Coast Guard funded the research.