Deepwater in trouble, watchdog says

The Coast Guard made a final acceptance of its first National Security Cutter this month without completing tests for key communications equipment on the boat, according to an investigation by a watchdog group.

The Coast Guard welcomed the $700 million cutter, named Bertholf, into its fleet on May 8 after many months of testing and operation. It is the largest asset produced thus far by the agency’s $24 billion Deepwater acquisition program.

However, key equipment needed for communications, referred to as Tempest capabilities, has not yet been installed on the Bertholf. The final testing will not be complete until those tests are performed in March 2010, Mandy Smithberger, national security investigator for the Project on Government Oversight watchdog group, wrote on her blog on May 21.

An important element of the Tempest suite is the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), which she said has not yet been installed. Once installed, it will need to be tested. The Coast Guard has avoided talking about the problem and is putting Deepwater acquisitions at risk by making final acceptances without completing testing, Smithberger wrote.

The Coast Guard should “not only be more transparent about the problems that exist, but also be wary of ramping up other Deepwater assets until the Tempest is proven,” Smithberger wrote. Whistleblower Michael DeKort has been raising concerns about the Tempest issues in Deepwater since 2003.

Smithberger said she based her findings on an interview she held with Rear Adm. Gary Blore, assistant commandant for acquisition, on May 19.

“Adm. Blore told me that both the visual and the instrumented tests for the Tempest were completed in April. But follow-up questions on that statement suggest that it isn't the case at all,” Smithberger wrote. “Currently, the plan is to have the [SCIF] installed and operational in March 2010. When I asked a Coast Guard representative if they would have to conduct more testing following the SCIF's installation, they confirmed that they would.”

A Coast Guard spokesman referred a reporter to the acquisitions directorate, which did not respond to a request for comment.

The Coast Guard hired Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. as prime contractors and lead systems integrators for Deepwater in 2002. In 2007, the Coast Guard rejected eight patrol boats built under Deepwater due to structural problems. The Coast Guard took over as lead systems integrator shortly afterward.