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Acquisition Partnerships: A Guiding Principle Toward Success

Despite having one of the broadest mission sets of any uniformed service, the U.S. Coast Guard is small in both funding and numbers. To get the right equipment into the hands of Coast Guard personnel on the front lines of the homeland security mission, the Coast Guard’s Acquisition Directorate (CG-9) pursues a strategy of leveraging the capabilities of its professional acquisition workforce as well as the expertise of other agencies by forging partnerships.

CGC Waesche at-sea refueling with the USNS Yukon

The Coast Guard national security cutter (NSC) Waesche conducts at-sea refueling operations with the USNS Yukon for the first time in the cutter’s history, May 25, 2011. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Eggers

Working to share resources and maximize opportunities to leverage the capabilities and larger budgets of other services – primarily the U.S. Navy – is even more important in the current fiscal environment, where budget constraints are forcing government agencies to make tough choices. The Coast Guard is taking steps to ensure that it is equipped with the capabilities to continue to meet its 11 mandated missions.

“It is a wide-ranging term, but our motto is, ‘Mission execution starts here.’ We have to provide the Coast Guard with the platforms required to execute its missions,” noted Mike Tangora, the civilian deputy assistant commandant for acquisition. “The Navy starts with a threat assessment; for us, it’s a mission area and for all of our platforms it means multi-mission capable.”

To obtain the assets needed to accomplish each of its missions, the smallest military service initiates requirements development, acquisition strategy, preliminary design, execution, and building the platform. Then, the asset is delivered, and operationally tested to ensure it’s performing to standards. The process also necessitates setting up life-cycle management, with all the tools required to support an asset from cradle to grave.

The Acquisition Directorate oversees more than 20 acquisition programs, including 17 major acquisitions, meaning they cost more than $300 million from acquisition to maintenance throughout their useful lives. A few of these projects are:

Coast Guard Leveraging Partnerships

There are many aspects of Coast Guard missions that provide opportunities for effective partnerships with other federal agencies. U.S. Coast Guard graphic

  • The offshore patrol cutter (OPC) is currently in the pre-acquisition stage. The Coast Guard has released its draft specification and is currently reviewing comments from industry. Under its acquisition strategy, the service is preparing the request for proposal (RFP), assembling/drafting the statement of work, and conducting some upfront systems engineering.
  • Production under the national security cutter (NSC) project is well under way and the Coast Guard is incorporating delivered assets into its existing surface fleet. The third NSC, the Stratton, was delivered in September and the production contracts for NSC 4 and 5 were awarded in fiscal year 2011.
  • Other assets, such as the response boat-medium (RB-M), are in full-rate production, and approximately one-third of the 180 scheduled to be acquired have been delivered, with another one-third under contract.

The Acquisition Directorate is comprised of approximately 600 civilian and 400 military personnel, including accountants, logisticians, engineers, program managers, operators, and contracting officers. Since the directorate stood up in July 2007, the Coast Guard has established a robust, disciplined, and proactive certification process to ensure personnel are appropriately trained and certified.

Deputy Assistant Commandant for Acquisition Michael Tangora

Michael Tangora, the U.S. Coast Guard’s deputy assistant commandant for acquisition, talked about the Coast Guard partnerships developed through foreign military sales during the spring 2011 Sea-Air-Space Expo. U.S. Coast Guard photo by PAC Sarah B. Foster

In the past four years, the service has spent a considerable amount of money hiring professionals and putting hundreds of people through rigorous course work in contracting, engineering, program management, and other education required for certification.

With this certification process active and in place, one of the primary focus areas of the directorate turned to what might be considered the most basic element in the acquisition process … the contract.

“In acquisition, what you really worry about is the requirements, acquisition strategy, and ultimately the contract – don’t take your eyes off the contract, actively manage it. That’s how we hold the contractor accountable. Where we make mistakes, industry and government, is when we miscommunicate our mutual expectations via the contract, with wrong expectations or statements of work,” Tangora said. “But it all comes down to the contract, which is the capstone document in any procurement and at the center of any acquisition program. It is our agreement with the platform manufacturer, and to modify it after award can be very costly.”

The Coast Guard has established itself as the system integrator over all of its acquisition projects and continues to move away from the commercial lead system integrator (LSI) construct employed earlier under the legacy Deepwater contract.

Deepwater was envisioned as a turnkey contract to do everything, bringing all programs and platforms in the Coast Guard transformation under a single umbrella, and according to Tangora, those expectations were misplaced. Four years later, he hopes that a strong contract focus and the professionalism of his directorate will push the memory – not the lessons learned but the memory – of Deepwater into the past.

H-65C Dolphin crews conduct Deck Landing Qualifications on the CGC Bertholf

H-65C Dolphin crews conduct their “first operational” Deck Landing Qualifications on the CGC Bertholf off the Southern California coast. Crewmembers were from Air Stations San Francisco, Calif.; Humboldt Bay, Calif.; and North Bend, Ore. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Matt Udkow, Air Station San Francisco

“You have to match your requirements to your resources; you have to know the requirements really well to cost it out. If you thoroughly understand them and know your engineering, then you should know with a good confidence factor what the platform will cost. But if there is an imbalance between cost and resources, then you have increased risk,” he explained, adding the worst version of that is to outsource everything.

Tangora goes on to explain that agencies should never buy technology without first having the intent to understand how it is built and maintained. If an agency doesn’t possess the knowledge of how technology functions, it cannot then assess the legitimate costs involved.

The smallest branch of the armed forces isn’t large enough to go it alone, so the Coast Guard relies on partnerships. For example, in building the NSCs, part of the oversight was conducted by Navy employees on lease to handle inspections and governance.

“If I tried to run this acquisition without the Navy, I would need another 1,000 people, all with the core competencies and facilities that the Navy brings,” he said. “We certainly couldn’t have accomplished the successes to date for most of our surface vessels and aircraft without the Navy. And the relationship between the Navy and Coast Guard has never been better – wherever we can assist the Navy, we do.”

Using Navy expertise – such as flight deck certification – means the Coast Guard does not need to create and maintain that capability internally. The list of programs leveraging Navy acquisition and capabilities for economies of scale is extensive: All Coast Guard combat systems, including all aircraft and gun systems; computer support, information assurance and global command, control, communications, computers, or C4; initial combat system training; supply support; and engineering support for larger ship programs. In addition, the Coast Guard Research and Development Center is tied to the Office of Naval Research.

decommissioned patrol boat DoD Excess Defense Articles program

This 82-foot patrol boat was decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard and transferred to Azerbaijan through the U.S. Department of Defense’s Excess Defense Articles program, which offers U.S. assets declared excess to foreign partners in support of U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives. U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA3 L.F. Chambers

The same approach is also carried out with other agencies, from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to the Army Corps of Engineers; all C-130 Hercules aircraft are bought through the Air Force; work on the medium-range H-60 Jayhawk helicopter, especially the cockpit, is done in close cooperation with the Army.

When the Coast Guard has an acquisition requirement, it looks for a well-run program of record and attempts to combine its efforts when possible, especially the more well-run programs. If the Coast Guard can deliver commonality, that reduces its life-cycle costs and potentially those of other agencies. The Army/Navy, for example, buys rotors and blades for their H-60 fleet in bulk, but they have hundreds compared to about 42 in the Coast Guard fleet. If the service can leverage their economies of scale, then it can obtain parts and services as if the Coast Guard was a larger customer.

“We apply our acquisition discipline across the board consistently,” Tangora concluded. “We strive for the best deal we can get and fight against the urge to rush the process. Some of our programs are early and have more challenges; others are past the first article success and are in serial or full-rate production, which tend to be easier than delivering the first asset. When you look across the board at Coast Guard acquisitions, even where we have risk areas in some of our programs, all of them are running great and delivering assets to the fleet that is anxiously waiting for them. We are executing at least $1.3 billion in acquisitions per year, which is a great achievement for a workforce of our size.”

This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...