coastguardbertholf photo

The 0 million U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf passes beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Its home port is Alameda.Petty Officer 2nd Class Levi Read/U.S. Coast Guard

A massive undertaking by the U.S. Coast Guard to purchase new ships and aircraft continues to be plagued by tens of billions of dollars in cost overruns, poor budget planning and scheduling setbacks, according to congressional investigators from the Government Accountability Office.

Officials originally expected a price tag of $24.2 billion for the Deepwater Program, a name the Coast Guard wound up sharing by coincidence with the highly publicized 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The Coast Guard has since dumped the Deepwater name, but troubles with the purchasing program remain: Expected costs now are running as high as $65 billion.

It was the Coast Guard, incidentally, that responded when the nation was only beginning to learn about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and subsequent environmental disaster. Former Commandant Thad Allen became a fixture in America’s living rooms as he provided nightly updates on the cleanup and investigation. Auditors nonetheless tell Congress that the fiscal reality is different today and the Coast Guard’s ambitions can’t be supported by its annual budget.

“We have previously reported that, given the cost growth, schedule delays and expected changes to planned capabilities, the Deepwater program of record is unachievable,” the GAO told lawmakers at a hearing [PDF] last week in Washington.

The San Francisco Bay Area city of Alameda is the among the biggest beneficiaries so far for newly built Coast Guard ships and aircraft that have been pressed into service. The program’s first and most technologically advanced “national security cutter” was assigned a home there in 2008. The 418-foot-long Bertholf is packed with sophisticated weapons and equipment and completed its initial patrol last year near Alaska, conducting joint operations with the Army and pursuing illegal fisheries.

A second national security cutter called Waesche arrived in Alameda two years later, with a hulking 57 mm gun capable of firing 220 rounds per minute and an electronic warfare system that counters inbound missiles.

Several facilities, including an air station in San Diego, have received MH-60T helicopters upgraded with new infrared sensor systems as part of an overhaul of the Coast Guard’s air fleet. Officials are even in the process of figuring out how to launch unmanned drones from Coast Guard cutters.   

As the Coast Guard works to reverse its purchasing problems, its aging fleet continues to deteriorate. Two vessels were forced to abandon the Haiti earthquake relief effort in 2010 when they needed emergency repairs, and aircraft were sent elsewhere to pick up parts rather than aid in evacuations.

The Coast Guard also has been beset by a string of tragic accidents in recent years, including a February helicopter crash in Alabama that took the lives of four crew members during a training flight. Nine people were killed [PDF] in 2009 when an HC-130 Hercules searching for a small boat reported missing smashed into a Marine attack helicopter on a training mission near San Clemente Island in California.

Just before Christmas in 2009, a Coast Guard vessel collided with a boat carrying 13 people during San Diego Bay’s annual Parade of Lights. That incident killed an 8-year-old boy and seriously injured four other people. Lawyers for the Coast Guard petty officer who later was charged with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide blamed poor training and a lack of supervision.  

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.