Tuesday, March 11, 2008

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.

Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen several times referred to the Acushnet while defending his service’s $10 billion budget request in for 2009, which includes $1 billion for the Deepwater program.

Adm. Allen said he needed “every dollar” in the request in order to revamp the fleet.

The Bertholf was originally expected to cost about $300 million, but fixes to structural flaws bumped that to more than $500 million.

Hurricane Katrina heavily damaged the Pascagoula shipyard during Bertholf’s construction and delayed completion by several months.

Bertholf’s latest problems have their roots in the class of 123-foot cutters, all prematurely retired last year after many of the boats experienced cracked and buckled hulls.

The boats had just completed a $100 million improvement program led by Northrop Grumman, which was intended to be one of Deepwater’s first milestones.

Nearly a year ago, Adm. Allen said he was downgrading the status of Deepwater lead contractors Lockheed Martin and Northrop, ending their roles integrating the various Deepwater systems.

Instead, Adm. Allen said, the Coast Guard would hire additional acquisitions experts to oversee integration.

Last fall, Anthony D’Armiento, a Coast Guard civilian employee, leaked documents pertaining to ongoing problems with Bertholf’s communications gear.

Mr. D’Armiento was placed on paid leave after several publications reported on the communications problems. He was the latest in a long line of Deepwater whistleblowers.

In 2006, Michael DeKort, a former Lockheed Martin employee, posted a homemade testimonial to the video-sharing Web site YouTube, in which he accused Lockheed of cutting corners on the radios — shortcuts that later undermined Bertholf’s design.

Last week, Adm. Allen appeared before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee to defend the program before skeptical lawmakers.

“We want to make sure that all the assets the Coast Guard is seeking to have a proper amount of oversight and attention,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, Washington Democrat.

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