- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday called on Homeland Security to come up with a “plan of action” to upgrade a deteriorating fleet of U.S. Coast Guard cutters assigned to protect national-security interests.

“The challenge from drug traffickers, global terrorists and human smugglers will not be met by an aging fleet of cutters,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida said in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. “America’s national security and interests are being threatened, often at great distance from our shores.”

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen’s concerns center on a report last month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which described numerous problems with a $24 billion effort to modernize the Coast Guard fleet.

The report said problems in the design and performance of new ships, faulty cost controls and lack of contractor accountability have led to significant delays in the rollout of the Coast Guard’s so-called “Deepwater” fleet.

“I am concerned that operational delays and schedule slippages have increased the risk of the Coast Guard failing to meet its overall homeland-security objectives in a timely and fiscally responsible manner,” Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said. “The American people need leadership and a firm plan of action … to improve program management, strengthen contractor accountability and promote cost control through increased competition among contractors.

“Only then will these vessels get to sea promptly and efficiently.”

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said that even though the crew aboard a 40-year-old Coast Guard cutter successfully seized more than 20 tons of cocaine valued at $300 million last month off the coast of Panama, the operation exposed “some long-standing problems” with the Deepwater program.

“These drugs, which finance terrorism and murder in Colombia and corruption in countries throughout the region, would have brought death and despair to our own shores if not for the bravery and dedication of our Coast Guard,” she said.

But she also said that Adm. Thad W. Allen, Coast Guard commandant, complimented the crew of the cutter involved in the seizure, saying it “overcame significant challenges in maintaining a 40-year-old deepwater cutter to prosecute this mission far from U.S. shores.”

She urged Mr. Chertoff to move expeditiously to resolve and repair the problems and “get our nation and its people the kind of modern operational U.S. Coast Guard fleet we require to preserve and protect our homeland.”

Since 2001, the GAO has raised concerns about program management, contractor accountability and cost control as continuing challenges in upgrading the fleet. In its March 6 report, the GAO said the Coast Guard faced operational challenges because of performance and design problems.

The report said performance problems led the Coast Guard to suspend all normal operations of the 123-foot patrol boats that had been converted from 110-foot patrol boats, and the Coast Guard suspended design work on the Fast Response Cutter because of design risks, delaying the delivery of the vessel.

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