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Reshaping Coast Guard Acquisition and Contracting Capabilities

A commitment to delivering safe, reliable, and capable assets

The U.S. Coast Guard has made great strides in recent years that have enabled it to successfully acquire and deliver new and improved aircraft, surface vessels, and systems that help the Service’s men and women execute their missions more efficiently and effectively. However, a few years ago, the Coast Guard faced the same level of congressional scrutiny as the Department of Defense regarding acquisition programs that lawmakers termed too big, too expensive, too late, and failing to adequately address changing requirements.

For the Coast Guard, the target was Deepwater, a massive quarter-century long, $24 billion program to replace nearly all its aircraft and ships, as well as logistics and command and control systems, with an interoperable fleet and systems tied into state-of-the-art command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems.

The CGC Waesche transits through San Francisco Bay for the first time en route to its homeport of Alameda, Calif., Feb. 28, 2010. Waesche is the second Legend-class cutter and was commissioned in May.

In response, the Coast Guard created a new Acquisition Directorate that merged the Deepwater projects with other acquisition programs, drafted a “Blueprint for Acquisition Reform,” and split the various components of Deepwater into separate acquisition programs. The Service also discontinued the use of outside lead systems integrators, instead moving program oversight and leadership in-house.

“We have made good progress with the Blueprint and [have brought in] tremendous individuals with the right backgrounds to advance our acquisition program,” according to Coast Guard Vice Commandant, Vice Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara. “We have divided our programs into domains, so we can manage acquisitions by surface, air and C4ISR, with everyone now working in the same building. That has allowed us to develop some real synergies on how people interact, exchange information, learn from one another, and continue to refine and improve how they manage our acquisition programs.

“We have established more disciplined processes and procedures, described in the Coast Guard’s ‘Major Systems Acquisition Manual.’ It aligns the Coast Guard with the Department of Homeland Security’s acquisition management policy and processes and makes sure we operate a rigorous, disciplined acquisition operation,” said Brice-O’Hara.

Lt. Steve Pittman (left) and Lt. Derrick Hendrickson, HC-144 Ocean Sentry pilots from Aviation Training Center Mobile, Ala., fly toward Haiti Jan. 15, 2010. The pilots and their crew conducted damage-assessment flights after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake. The Ocean Sentry replaces the HU-25 Falcon jet to perform medium-range missions. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nick Ameen

“The ‘Blueprint for Continuous Improvement’ is our long-term strategic plan for achieving acquisition excellence. We wrote it to guide us in developing the internal functional capabilities necessary to manage the cost, schedule, and performance of our most complex acquisition projects,” she explained.

“This is a journey, not something finite. But we will continue to make improvements as we become more savvy on the business side of our acquisition program,” Brice-O’Hara concluded.

Recent Coast Guard acquisition reforms also recognize the value of recruiting and retaining personnel with specialized skills, an in-demand resource.

“Developing and retaining a skilled, certified acquisition workforce is hard work, but we know the payoff is tremendous. We want the Coast Guard to be a model for mid-size federal acquisition operations, and I think we have made marked progress toward that goal. When you consider the Coast Guard’s acquisition operations today versus where they were even as little as three or four years ago, there are a lot of marked improvements,” noted Brice-O’Hara.

“We still have some vacancies, part of that due to the normal workforce attrition process. But with the rigor we’ve brought to the program and the importance we’ve placed on it, we are attracting more and more military personnel as well as stellar civilian employees who want to enter an acquisition career path. The Service recently gained an important workforce management tool, Direct Hire Authority, for certain acquisition positions, which significantly streamlines filling critical gaps. We are growing talent to a far greater degree than previously,” Brice-O’Hara said.

The Acquisition Directorate works closely with the sponsors, i.e. the prospective operators/end users of the asset or technology to be acquired, to identify and understand the key performance parameters, objectives, and technical requirements for the acquisition. For example, the sponsor of a computer system acquisition may determine that a specific amount of data storage space is required for the system to be useful. Acquisition project staff, in cooperation with other units, then begin to narrow down what options might best meet the mission requirements through careful research and analysis. In addition to their normal duties, project management staff are also required to maintain acquisition certifications through regular training and education sessions.

Seaman Jorge Valcarcel, of Long Beach, Calif., waits as a tie-down crewmember while Ensign Michelle Casillo (middle), of Niskayuna, N.Y., helps Ensign Paul Lillis, of Englewood, Fla., land an MH-65C rescue helicopter aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Rush Sept. 22, 2009. USCG photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jaclyn Young

Rear Adm. Ronald J. Rábago manages the day-to-day operations of the Acquisition Directorate. He was named assistant commandant for acquisition in June 2009, after serving as the Coast Guard’s program executive officer and director of acquisition programs. His oversight includes the Research and Development Center and the head of the contracting activity.

The vice commandant expressed great satisfaction with the changes the Coast Guard has implemented to improve future – as well as ongoing – acquisitions.

“First and foremost, we have always taken great pride in the fact our assets are multi-mission and easily can be used one day for search and rescue, the next [day] for counter-drug operations or disaster response,” Brice-O’Hara explained, citing the National Security Cutter (NSC) as an example of how performance versatility is one of the factors considered in a Coast Guard acquisition project.

“The NSC is the first cutter in the Coast Guard to feature both a stern launch boat system that can accommodate two cutter boats and a flight deck for helicopter and possible future VUAV [vertical unmanned aerial vehicle] operations. This is a capability that can be applied across the spectrum of our mission sets, from disaster relief to law enforcement to environmental response,” she said.

“With the NSC’s endurance and flexibility, it can serve as an afloat, on-scene command post or coordination point not only during an oil spill but for many kinds of operations at sea. For example, it can launch small boats to help secure a perimeter, conduct helicopter operations, and coordinate with other responders via the command, control, and communications equipment onboard,” she said.

“The NSC is also the first Coast Guard cutter to have a SCIF [secure compartmented information facility]. The need for interoperability with other government and law enforcement partners, like the Department of Defense and other components of the Department of Homeland Security, was a critical requirement for the NSC project,” Brice-O’Hara explained.

Onlookers gather at a keel laying ceremony at Bollinger Shipyards for the U.S. Coast Guard’s first Sentinel-class fast response cutter (FRC) April 9, 2010. The Coast Guard’s newest class of cutters, the FRC is a 154-foot vessel named after enlisted heroes from throughout the Coast Guard’s history. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas M. Blue

So far, two of eight planned NSCs have been commissioned, and the third, CGC Stratton, was recently christened by first lady Michelle Obama. The new cutters have already successfully performed several high-profile missions.

The Acquisition Directorate’s success is much broader than the NSC project. Elsewhere in the surface program, the response boat-medium project is building boats at full-rate production, with two assembly lines constructing the high performance replacement for the Coast Guard’s 41-foot utility boat. In addition, the Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter project now has eight cutters under contract, with the first four currently under construction at Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, La.

In the aviation domain, the 11th HC-144A Ocean Sentry Medium Range Surveillance aircraft was recently delivered to the Coast Guard. Its extended loitering capability and advanced sensing and observation equipment are major enhancements to the Coast Guard’s medium-range, fixed-wing aircraft fleet and were a major contributor to airborne observation and oil tracking during the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon spill response. The Coast Guard is also adding powerful sensor capabilities to its HC-130H and HC-130J aircraft and modernizing its H-60 and H-65 helicopters with advanced cockpit instrumentation.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche, the second National Security Cutter, passes the Coast Guard Cutters Morgenthau, Sherman, and Boutwell, all 378-foot cutters, while preparing to moor at Coast Guard Island, July 22, 2010. The national security cutters will replace the aging 378-foot high endurance cutters that have been in service since the 1960s. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Melissa Leake

Rescue 21, a comprehensive search and rescue communications system that stretches across all domains, is on schedule to provide over 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline with coverage by 2012. That investment brings new direction-finding capabilities that help take the search out of search and rescue. Before, the Coast Guard had to rely heavily on the person in distress providing accurate location information verbally, over the radio.

Rescue 21 provides lines of bearing toward the source of the signal, typically using multiple towers to triangulate the location and thus greatly reducing the potential search area.

Recapitalization of aging surface, aviation, and technology assets is the No. 1 priority for the Service. Outdated, deteriorated equipment is less reliable and more expensive to maintain, factors that pose serious risks to mission execution. Brice-O’Hara emphasizes that the Coast Guard’s broad role in maritime safety, security, and environmental response makes state-of-the-art, reliable assets a critical requirement that the Coast Guard is working hard to fulfill.

This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2011 Edition.


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