GAO: US polar icebreaking program faces several risks

Photo: US Coast Guard

The US polar icebreaking program needs to address risks before committing resources, the country’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in its recent report.

The US Coast Guard (USCG) and Navy are planning to invest up to $9.8 billion to build and maintain three heavy polar icebreakers to conduct missions in the Antarctic and Arctic.

The contract is expected to be awarded in 2019, with the first ship scheduled for delivery in 2023.

After assessing issues related to the acquisition of ships, GAO has found risks in four key areas.

The USCG set program baselines before conducting a preliminary design review, which puts the program at risk of having an unstable design, thereby increasing the program’s cost and schedule risks.

The icebreaker program also faces risks as it has not fully assessed how well key technologies will work in this particular effort. Specifically, the USCG intends to use proven technologies for the program but did not conduct a technology readiness assessment to determine the maturity of key technologies prior to setting baselines.

In addition, its costs estimate may underestimate the funding needed for the program, GAO explained.

What is more, the program set ship delivery dates that are optimistic and not based on a realistic shipbuilding assessment. They are rather driven by the potential gap in icebreaking capabilities once the USCG only operating heavy polar icebreaker—the Polar Star—reaches the end of its service life.

GAO’s analysis of selected lead ships for other shipbuilding programs found the icebreaker program’s estimated construction time of three years is optimistic. As a result, the USCG is at risk of not delivering the icebreakers when promised and the potential gap in icebreaking capabilities could widen, GAO warned.

GAO is making six recommendations to the USCG, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the US Navy. It recommends that the relevant agencies conduct a technology readiness assessment, re-evaluate the cost estimate and develop a schedule according to best practices, and update program baselines following a preliminary design review.

DHS concurred with all six of GAO’s recommendations, the evaluation agency said.

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