Desperate to replace or upgrade pretty much everything it owned, in 2002 the Coast Guard handed over a "system of systems" plan to a joint venture of Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin -- Integrated Coast Guard Systems, they call it -- and asked Congress for a billion dollars per year for 25 years to pay for it. The so-called Deepwater scheme would deliver a hundred new ships and boats and a couple hundred aircraft plus a brand-new service-wide command-and-control architecture to tie them all together. All in all, an ambitious vision.
There were problems early on. Eight of the Coast Guard's 49 110-foot patrol boats were stretched and upgraded despite being five years past their design life, and after Lockheed Martin redelivered them to the service last year, they sprung leaks and had to be laid up. Meanwhile, former Lockmart employee Mike DeKort was calling attention to management problems related to the boats. With its patrol boat force gutted, the Coast Guard was in an ungodly rush to get replacements and waffled between new and off-the-shelf designs before settling on a combination of both. Now comes the news that the service is going to handle urgent procurement of the off-the-shelf boats itself rather than leaving it to ICGS.
Sure, it looks bad for our industry pals. But remember that there's a lot more to Deepwater than just patrol boats. And before we go calling ICGS and all of Deepwater failures, let's take a look at what has actually worked ... and let's recall that, at a modest $25 billion over 25 years, Deepwater is cheap. Even where it fails, it fails at a fraction of the cost of the big Army and Air Force programs.
The eight new large cutters -- the size of Navy frigates -- are on time and on cost. (Update: some dispute this, PDF!) The first, Bertholf, was christened in the fall; dedicated training facilities opened last week. The first of 36 HC-144 patrol planes was delivered in January, on time, on budget and with no complaints. The command-and-control systems -- perhaps the most important part of Deepwater -- are performing as advertised at the advertised price. And the upgrading of 96 HH-65 rescue choppers has wrapped quietly and without scandal. I hitched a ride on one of these birds in December, and it was as responsive as ICGS promised it would be.
As for those patrol boats and the troubled program to replace them: don't forget that the initial problem, the structural flaws that forced the Coast Guard to lay up eight upgraded boats, aren't really ICGS's fault. Those boats were designed to last just 15 years and should have been retired already. Decades of underfunding have forced the Coast Guard -- and ICGS -- to make do with one of the world's oldest fleets. I visited the service's repair yard last year to see firsthand the rusty patches and pinholes that have resulted from the government's chronic neglect of our smallest military service. The blame for Deepwater's (modest) problems lie with more parties than just ICGS.
--David Axe, cross-posted at War Is Boring