In a development that will almost certainly heighten U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), Congressional, and industry concerns about the lack of heavy U.S. icebreaking capabilities today and moving forward, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) this week released a report slamming the USCG’s lack of business case planning for the new start and concluding that before the U.S. Government commits resources to a three-ship Heavy Polar Icebreaker Program (HPIB) projected to cost about $10 billion, the USCG must first address fundamental program risks.

The GAO found that the Coast Guard — a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — did not have a sound business case in March 2018, when it established the cost, schedule, and performance baselines for its heavy polar icebreaker acquisition program, because of risks in four key areas:

(1) Design – The Coast Guard set program baselines before conducting a preliminary design review, which puts the program at risk of having an unstable design, thereby increasing the program’s cost and schedule risks. While setting baselines without a preliminary design review is consistent with DHS’s current acquisition policy, it is inconsistent with acquisition best practices. Based on GAO’s prior recommendation, DHS is currently evaluating its policy to better align technical reviews and acquisition decisions.

(2) Technology – The Coast Guard intends to use proven technologies for the program, but did not conduct a technology readiness assessment to determine the maturity of key technologies prior to setting baselines. Coast Guard officials indicated such an assessment was not necessary because the technologies the program plans to employ have been proven on other icebreaker ships. However, according to best practices, such technologies can still pose risks when applied to a different program or operational environment, as in this case. Without such an assessment, the program’s technical risk is underrepresented.

(3) Cost – The lifecycle cost estimate that informed the program’s $9.8 billion cost baseline substantially met GAO’s best practices for being comprehensive, well-documented, and accurate, but only partially met best practices for being credible. The cost estimate did not quantify the range of possible costs over the entire life of the program. As a result, the cost estimate was not fully reliable and may underestimate the total funding needed for the program.

(4) Schedule – The Coast Guard’s planned delivery dates were not informed by a realistic assessment of shipbuilding activities, but rather driven by the potential gap in icebreaking capabilities once the Coast Guard’s only operating heavy polar icebreaker—the Polar Star —reaches the end of its service life (see figure).

Accordingly, the GAO made six recommendations to the Coast Guard, DHS, and the Navy. Among other things, GAO recommended that the program conduct a technology readiness assessment, re-evaluate its cost estimate and develop a schedule according to best practices, and update program baselines following a preliminary design review. DHS concurred with all six of GAO’s recommendations.

DSJ notes that federal appropriations for the HPIB program, which President’s budget requested $750 million in FY19, were zeroed-out in Congressional consideration of the FY19 Homeland Security Appropriations Act.