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Coast Guard Acquisition: Actions Needed to Address Affordability Challenges

GAO-24-107584 Published: Jun 12, 2024. Publicly Released: Jun 12, 2024.
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Fast Facts

The Coast Guard is investing over $40 billion to replace and update its aircraft and ships. We testified on the Coast Guard's challenges managing this portfolio of major acquisitions.

The Coast Guard makes short-term budget decisions without considering costs for longer-term projects, such as a costly backlog of shore infrastructure.

Because of this budget approach, the Coast Guard is kicking the can down the road—resulting in higher costs in later years. This cost growth in programs—such as the Polar Security Cutter—make affordability challenges worse. Making the portfolio affordable could mean making tradeoffs, like cuts to other programs.

Shipyard’s rendering of a Polar Security Cutter, a heavy polar icebreaking ship

Red and white ship cutting through polar ice.

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What GAO Found

The Coast Guard plans to spend over $40 billion to modernize its vessels and aircraft. But it faces persistent challenges managing its major acquisition programs—generally those with life-cycle cost estimates of at least $300 million. These challenges include:

Cost growth. Coast Guard's planned investments for its portfolio of major acquisitions increased by $8.2 billion since 2018. The increase is primarily related to cost increases on the Offshore Patrol Cutter program and additional investments in MH-60T helicopters. This problem increases the cost pressure on the overall portfolio.

Lack of long-term planning. The Coast Guard makes short-term budget decisions that obscure the trade-offs needed to balance the long-term affordability of the portfolio. In 2014, GAO recommended that the Coast Guard develop a long-term plan to manage its highest priority efforts. The agency agreed and statute directed the Coast Guard to develop such a plan. But the Coast Guard, as of June 2024, has yet to produce one.

Affordability. The Coast Guard's short-term budget decisions have resulted in a buildup—or bow wave—of near-term unfunded acquisitions. These decisions could negatively affect future acquisition efforts and operations.

The Coast Guard's Offshore Patrol Cutter

The Coast Guard's Offshore Patrol Cutter

Program uncertainties. Further, the Coast Guard faces uncertainties—such as unrealistic schedules and cost estimates—on two of Coast Guard's highest priority programs: the Offshore Patrol Cutter and Polar Security Cutter. These uncertainties will likely exacerbate portfolio affordability challenges.

GAO has made several recommendations and matters for Congressional consideration that, if implemented, would inform key questions for decision-makers, such as:

  • How can Coast Guard manage its acquisition programs to achieve better cost and schedule outcomes?
  • Which programs will decision-makers cut, reduce, or defer to balance the affordability of the Coast Guard portfolio?

Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. Coast Guard employs a variety of vessels and aircraft, several of which are approaching the end of their intended service lives. Consequently, the Coast Guard plans to invest billions of dollars to acquire several high priority assets. These include three Polar Security Cutters, 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters, and 79 additional MH-60T helicopters.

This statement addresses (1) challenges with the affordability of the Coast Guard's portfolio of major acquisitions, and (2) key questions that the Coast Guard and Congressional decision-makers will need to address because of these challenges. The statement also highlights GAO's prior recommendations and matters for Congress which, if implemented, would help address the challenges. This statement is largely based on GAO's prior work on Coast Guard acquisitions issued from 2012 through 2024, including GAO-18-454, GAO-23-105805 and GAO-23-105949. Information about the scope and methodology of prior work on which this statement is based can be found in those products.


Since 2012, GAO has made 48 recommendations (16 of which remain open) on how to better manage the Coast Guard's major acquisition programs. GAO will continue to monitor the agency's progress in addressing these recommendations. GAO has also made matters for congressional consideration to improve Coast Guard acquisitions. Two of these matters remain open.

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