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February 27, 2014

US Coast Guard

Recently the US Coast Guard down-selected to 3 shipyards on the US Coast Guard OPC Program. The successful bids are from: Eastern Shipbuilding, Bollinger Shipyards, and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works (BIW). Each of these shipyards has been awarded a further $22 million dollar contract to execute a preliminary and contract design for the vessels.

You may know that the Coast Guard is asking for ShipConstructor compatible deliverables and that these shipyards have all used ShipConstructor in some fashion: Eastern and Bollinger as active clients and BIW when they were working with Austal on the LCS program.

What I find the most interesting is the type and experience of the shipyards that were selected. Without being inside the process I can’t comment on the quality of the proposals so far. What I do know is that the Coast Guard has selected a very successful commercial shipyard with a long track record in workboats, a shipyard with both extensive commercial experience and a proven track record on US Coast Guard vessels, and a large shipbuilder with a proven history on US Navy programs. I’d be surprised to learn that the diversity represented here is unintentional.

What remains to be seen is which of the yards the procurement process, from design all the way through to delivery, is better suited to. Each of these shipyards has strengths for building this type of vessel.

More and more we’re hearing the echoes of “design then build” and desires to move ever closer to civilian specifications on Navy vessels and Coast Guard vessels alike. This could be a strength for Eastern with their proven ability to produce commercial vessels at a prodigious rate, although the spectre of the LCS (admittedly a very different shipbuilding program, and for the Navy) with some of these same aspirations, has to be on everyone’s radar. Whatever you think of the LCS in terms of fit, role and capability the shipbuilding program is now reliably producing ships, but it did receive enough negative press initially to make anyone think twice.

In the middle of the pack we have what is likely the safest bet. With a proven track record with no less than 3 separate US Coast Guard programs (Sentinel Class, Marine Protector Class, and Island Class) Bollinger has the most experience working with the US Coast Guard. One of their chosen partners, Damen, is also a known quantity in terms of providing the design for the programs Bollinger has delivered to the Coast Guard. And they have an excellent commercial shipbuilding pedigree to boot.

In terms of building mid-size vessels for the US Coast Guard perhaps General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, with a history of building large destroyers (the DDG-51 class and the new DDG-1000 class) for the US Navy, wouldn’t be the obvious choice. However it should be noted that HII – Ingalls Shipbuilding, a yard often considered to be the other side of the same coin (they compete on the DDG-51 program, and were competing on the DDG-1000 program initially) has successfully delivered on the US Coast Guard Legend Class (the 4th vessel, USCGC Hamilton was recently christened). Additionally, the OPC has been touted as a next generation ship, and the most technologically advanced vessel the Coast Guard has ever operated. In these types of shipbuilding programs, words like “technologically advanced” often go hand-in-hand with design changes, technology changes, and risk. The OPC is also to be built in an era of ever increasing budgetary uncertainty. These factors all potentially add up to a significant amount of change, uncertainty and instability. This is an environment in which a shipyard that has built extensively for the US Navy will be right at home.

If nothing else, with the way that the OPC program is unfolding it will be very interesting to see what happens next. 

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