The Coast Guard (USCG) “continues to take the short-term focus for planning and prioritizing and it is not addressing the long term affordability” of its recapitalization acquisition strategy, said Marie Mak, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) at a congressional hearing coordinated with the release a new GAO report highlighting the challenges the USCG has faced in modernizing its cutters and aircraft.

This GAO report is the latest review of USCG’s multi-billion dollar recapitalization effort aimed at replacing legacy cutters and vertical lift platforms with newer versions, which has fraught the service since the transition began in 2002 with the Deepwater acquisition program.

Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, pointed out there is already a current operational shortage, which will only be worsened as more is demanded of USCG for drug interdiction and border patrol in the coming years, while simultaneously losing assets as legacy cutters and the Polarstar, the lone Icebreaker in USCG’s fleet, reach the end of their service lives and acquisition costs delay new asset procurement.

Even assuming the current acquisition schedule, which Mak characterized as “very very optimistic,” USCG will face a 15,000 operational hour deficit for major cutter capabilities.

“Until new assets being acquired become available, the Coast Guard plans to rely on aging assets, many of which are already past their intended service lives—the time an asset is expected to operate,” the report stated. For example, the Coast Guard plans to replace the 210-foot Reliance-class Medium-Endurance Cutters (210MEC) and 270-foot Famous-Class (270MCE), with the newer Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC) beginning in 2023, but the MECs exhausted their intended service lives in 2014.

“The Coast Guard plans to extend service lives for some of the Medium Endurance Cutters to keep them operating longer; however, maintenance for these vessels is becoming more expensive, and some systems are obsolete,” the report stated, and in addition, even with 15-year service life refurbishments, major operating gaps would remain.  

Mak said that the service has made “better attempts” to address recurring acquisition issues of GAO reports, which in 2014 gave the critical conclusion that “the Coast Guard [was] farther from fielding its planned fleet [in 2014] than it was in 2009.”

It is “vitally important to develop a more strategic and comprehensive approach,” Mak said. “There’s only so much funding, which is why we keep emphasizing the need to prioritize.”

“We’re trying to limp some assets along, older assets that are expensive that bring near-term capability while we wait for some assets,” said Vice Admiral Daniel Abel, Deputy Commandant for Operations. “We just need to get to the new assets.”