Coast Guard delays cutter over radios

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Faulty radios have delayed by six months the deployment of the first oceangoing Coast Guard cutter, the latest problem in a $25 billion effort to turn the U.S. coastal protection and police force into a potent weapon in the war on terrorism.

Radios on the 420-foot USCGC Bertholf have a checkered past. When the same model was first installed on smaller Coast Guard cutters, guardsmen discovered they were not waterproof.

That proved fairly easy to fix. But a bigger problem that has yet to be resolved involves the wiring, which is not properly shielded so that outsiders — including terrorists — can eavesdrop on Coast Guard communications.

The Bertholf is slated to begin service sometime this summer instead of its planned deployment in February, Coast Guard officials say.

“We”re trying to be proactive,” said Coast Guard spokeswoman Laura Williams, who emphasized that the Coast Guard was taking all the time it needed to conduct proper testing.

The Bertholf, built by Northrop Grumman at its Pascagoula, Miss., facility, is larger and potentially more powerful than any previous Coast Guard cutter.

It boasts a 57 mm gun, sophisticated sensors and a hangar for helicopter gunships.

The cutter’s size and armaments reflect the Coast Guard’s growing responsibilities in the “war on terror,” including more overseas patrols.

In 2003, the 50,000-strong Coast Guard was transferred from the Transportation Department to the newly established Homeland Security Department to reflect its expanded responsibilities.

The Bertholf is part of a $25 billion, 20-year “Deepwater” plan, begun in 2002, which has been plagued by technical problems, cost overruns, scandal and congressional skepticism.

The new cutter, Bertholf, is no exception.

A “system of systems” approach, in which a wide range of ships and airplanes share many common components, such as radios, means that flaws that cropped up earlier continue to plague new ships, such as the Bertholf.

The Coast Guard’s roughly 30 large vessels are, on average, more than 40 years old and increasingly difficult to maintain.

In December, the cutter Acushnet, which was built during World War II, lost a propeller while at sea.

Capt. James McPherson, a Coast Guard spokesman, said the Coast Guard called maritime museums in its search for a replacement.

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