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Coast Guard Acquisitions: Polar Security Cutter Needs to Stabilize Design Before Starting Construction and Improve Schedule Oversight

GAO-23-105949 Published: Jul 27, 2023. Publicly Released: Jul 27, 2023.
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Fast Facts

The Coast Guard's only active heavy polar icebreaker, the aging Polar Star, primarily helps ensure U.S. access to Antarctica. The Coast Guard is working to design and build 3 Polar Security Cutters to replace it.

The U.S. hasn't built a heavy polar icebreaker in almost 50 years, creating challenges with designing and understanding how to build the cutters. Challenges—such as designing the hull to withstand icebreaking—extended the design phase by at least 3 years and delayed construction start.

To help the Coast Guard avoid costly rework and further delays, we recommended stabilizing the ship's design before starting construction.

Shipyard’s Rendering of a Polar Security Cutter

Rendering (illustration) of a Polar Security Cutter. The rendering shows a white and red ship surrounded by ice flow.

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What GAO Found

The Polar Security Cutter's (PSC) design is not yet mature, which has led to an extended design phase and contributed to a 3-year schedule delay in the shipyard, with construction of the first cutter now planned for March 2024. Coast Guard officials attribute the extended design phase to various challenges. For example, icebreaking hulls require thick steel—up to twice as thick as a non-icebreaker—and a dense framing structure that has been challenging to plan for the PSC. Additionally, Coast Guard officials stated that U.S.-based shipbuilders have limited expertise designing and building heavy polar icebreakers.

Notional Depiction of the Polar Security Cutter's Thick Hull and Dense Framing

Notional Depiction of the Polar Security Cutter's Thick Hull and Dense Framing

Starting construction with an immature design is contrary to leading practices. In another ongoing Coast Guard program, GAO found that construction started before the design was mature, resulting in costly rework and schedule delays.

The PSC program likely has unreliable schedule and cost estimates. The primary reasons are:

  • The acquisition program baseline includes a delivery date for the first PSC but not for the third PSC. At a minimum, without a delivery date for the third cutter, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may have fewer opportunities for oversight if the program experiences schedule delays in the years before the program is expected to be declared fully operational.
  • Key shipyard business systems that track labor hours, costs, and schedule performance were determined not to be acceptable for use, which affects the reliability of data. The Coast Guard and shipyard are taking steps to address the data limitations and GAO will continue to monitor progress.

The Coast Guard intends for its sole remaining, almost 50-year-old heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Star, to be available until at least the second PSC is operational. The Coast Guard has efforts underway to maintain and extend the life of this cutter. However, the Polar Star 's deteriorating systems present challenges, with top issues related to propulsion and electrical systems. The Coast Guard's assessments of the hull found it in good structural condition.

Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. Coast Guard, a component within DHS, has stated that it does not have enough polar icebreakers to meet its missions in the Arctic and Antarctic. To address the gap, the Coast Guard is partnering with the Navy to procure three heavy polar icebreakers, known as Polar Security Cutters. The Coast Guard plans to invest at least $11.6 billion for acquisition, operations, and maintenance of these cutters.

GAO was asked to review the acquisition of the PSC, including the progress of the design phase, and efforts to maintain and extend the life of the Polar Star, the current active heavy polar icebreaker. This report addresses the (1) factors that contributed to the PSC program's design delays, (2) extent to which the program has established realistic schedule and cost baselines, and (3) status of efforts to maintain and extend the life of the Polar Star until the PSCs are operational. GAO reviewed Coast Guard program and contract documentation and interviewed PSC and Navy program officials, as well as shipbuilder representatives.


GAO is making two recommendations, including that DHS ensures the design is sufficiently mature before the Coast Guard starts cutter construction and that DHS ensures the Coast Guard adds the third PSC delivery date into its acquisition program baseline. DHS concurred with both recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security The DHS Secretary should ensure the DHS Under Secretary for Management ensures design for the lead PSC is mature, meaning at least the functional design is complete, including routing of major distributive systems that affect multiple zones of the ship, prior to authorizing lead cutter construction beyond the previously approved eight prototype units. (Recommendation 1)
In April 2024, Coast Guard officials said they expect the functional design to be 100 percent complete by the end of 2024. This will support moving toward the DHS acquisition decision event (ADE) 3 milestone, which approves start of construction for the lead PSC when the DHS Under Secretary for Management approves the milestone.
Department of Homeland Security The DHS Secretary should ensure the DHS Under Secretary for Management ensures the Coast Guard adds the delivery date for the third PSC to the acquisition program baseline as soon as practical. (Recommendation 2)
As of April 2024, Coast Guard officials said the program had breached its acquisition program baseline in November 2023. The rebaseline effort for the program to establish a new schedule and cost estimate is planned to be complete by the end of 2024 whereby the acquisition program baseline will be updated with all milestone dates in the future. Officials told us that they expect this will include adding the third PSC's delivery date. We will continue to follow-up on this recommendation after the acquisition program baseline is approved.

Full Report

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Acquisition policyAcquisition programsCompliance oversightConstructionConstruction schedulesCost and scheduleDefense contractsEarned value management systemsIcebreakersSchedule slippagesShipbuilding