Allowing a shipyard devastated by a 2018 hurricane to proceed with plans to build several next-generation cutters will prevent a three-year delay in getting the vessels into service, the Coast Guard's top officer said this week.
Adm. Karl Schultz said restarting the entire bidding process for dozens of new offshore patrol cutters would create national security risks.
"We think there's a national compelling urgency on fielding offshore patrol cutters," Schultz said at a Tuesday event in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "That's 70% of our entire major cutter offshore fleet that does counter-drug work, that projects presence."
The Department of Homeland Security on Friday announced plans to allow the Florida-based Eastern Shipbuilding Group, which suffered serious damage during last year's Hurricane Michael, to build four new offshore patrol cutters. The company was initially slated to build nine of 25 cutters the Coast Guard plans to purchase.
The first of the new offshore patrol cutters is still likely to be about 10 months behind schedule as Eastern Shipbuilding Group recovers from the hurricane damages, Schultz said. But starting the whole process over would've tripled that timeline, he added.
"Had we gone with a full recompete, you're talking three-plus years," Schultz said.
Congress has 60 days to review the Department of Homeland Security's plan to have the Florida company pick up work on the first four cutters while giving other companies beat out in last year's contract award another shot at picking up some of the work.
Former Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, who stepped down the same day the announcement on the cutters was made, decided that the Coast Guard's plans were in the "best interest of the government."
"Extraordinary relief is necessary to maintain the national defense," the statement DHS put out on Friday says.
Schultz said Eastern Shipbuilding Group had requested that relief extend to the nine hulls the company initially planned to build for the Coast Guard. But as the service chief, the commandant said he felt moving forward with the plan to let them build four and then recompete the rest was the best way ahead.
"We've got to balance the risk for the organization ... and give Eastern a way forward here to still be successful," he said.
Eastern Shipbuilding Group was scheduled to deliver Argus, the first new 360-foot offshore patrol cutter, in 2021. The second and third cutters were to follow in 2022 and 2023.
Coast Guard officials call the offshore patrol cutter program the service's "highest investment priority." The ships will replace the aging medium-endurance cutters.
They're designed to serve a gap between the national security cutter, which can patrol the open ocean in the most demanding maritime environments, and the fast-response cutter, which service closer to shore, according to Coast Guard program descriptions.