Report: USCG Should Speed its Modernization

Monday, April 26, 2004
The U.S. Coast Guard's ongoing effort to update its fleet of cutters and air vehicles over 20 years will not equip the service to perform both its traditional missions and responsibilities that have emerged since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, so claimed a recently issued RAND Corporation study.

To obtain adequate assets, the Coast Guard needs to accelerate its planned purchases of cutters and air vehicles, and explore new platform options, emerging technologies and operational changes that would leverage the capabilities of its surface and air fleets, according to the RAND report. Such a two-pronged strategy may satisfy demand more quickly and at less cost than just expanding the Coast Guard's original modernization plan, said John Birkler, a senior RAND analyst and lead author of the report.

The U.S. Coast Guard commissioned RAND to assess its modernization plan, formally known as the Integrated Deepwater System Program or simply Deepwater. Deepwater began in the late 1990s to slowly but steadily replace or modernize nearly 100 aging cutters and more than 200 aircraft and helicopters.

The endeavor aims to equip the Coast Guard with state-of-the-art cutters, aircraft, helicopters, and unmanned air vehicles at an annual cost of about $500 million in fiscal year 1998 dollars, and to be completed in approximately 20 years. These assets will incorporate state-of-the-art sensors and electronics, and be supported by an integrated logistics system. The program is the largest and most complex acquisition effort in Coast Guard history. Although the new systems being acquired under Deepwater would be substantially more capable than the legacy systems being retired, the Coast Guard initially was directed to maintain the status quo in terms of overall capability, so that fewer new assets would be needed.

RAND's National Security Research Division was asked to evaluate whether the current Deepwater acquisition plan will provide the Coast Guard with an adequate number and array of cutters, air vehicles, and other assets to meet changing operational demands. RAND's assessment involved two parallel evaluations:

* An exploration of issues connected with speeding up, compressing, or otherwise accelerating the pace at which the Coast Guard can acquire surface and air assets that it will operate in the deepwater environment, defined as territory 50 or more nautical miles from shore. As part of this examination, RAND was asked to look at the implications for the force structure, cost, performance, and industrial base of commissioning all replacement assets, decommissioning all outmoded or old-technology (so-called legacy) assets, and completing all modernization tasks earlier than the year 2022.

* A determination of whether the original Deepwater plan would provide the Coast Guard with a force structure to meet mission demands. RAND was asked to evaluate the force structure that the original Deepwater acquisition plan would provide and define the boundaries of a force structure that would be large and flexible enough and with the capabilities to fulfill the Coast Guard's traditional and emerging responsibilities.

RAND researchers determined that the program's contractors are capable of building the new cutters and aircraft over a 10- or 15-year period. There would be no significant change to total acquisition cost, but annual expenditures would approximately double. Acquiring assets sooner would significantly boost the Coast Guard's capability in the short term.

RAND researchers concluded that the Coast Guard probably needs to purchase more cutters and aircraft than currently planned, but alternatives also must be a part of the strategy. That should include exploring new approaches that leverage the cutters and air vehicles, such as stationary offshore platforms that a variety of surface or air vehicles could use as operating bases. Other options may include using airships or unmanned air vehicles that can stay aloft for long periods to handle observation patrols, while cutting reliance on manned air and surface assets.

In 2002, the Coast Guard was shifted from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security. The Coast Guard was directed to move more rapidly to modernize its fleet of almost 100 cutters and an air arm of more than 200 craft that dates back, in part, to 1950s designs. The RAND study is titled "The U.S. Coast Guard's Deepwater Force Modernization Plan: Can It Be Accelerated? Will It Meet Changing Security Needs?" Other authors of the report are Brien Alkire, Robert Button, Gordon Lee, Raj Raman, John Schank and Carl Stephens, all of RAND.

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