When I think of the Coast Guard, the image that comes to mind is that of heroes putting out to sea in heavy weather to search for and rescue people clinging to disabled vessels. Search and rescue is indeed a primary mission of the Coast Guard, tho it also plays important roles as a maritime police force and as a military branch. I am therefore outraged at the idea of such heroes being forced to operate with defective equipment
Unfortunately, just such an outrage is being perpetrated. After many years during which little had been done to upgrade Coast Guard boats, planes, and other equipment, or even to replace aging apparatus, a major project to re-equip the Coast Guard was launched in 2002. This is the Deepwater program, initially budgeted at $17 billion, now at $24 billion. The plans called for 91 new ships, 124 small boats, 195 new or rebuilt helicopters and 49 unmanned aerial vehicles. Sadly, virtually every aspect of this project that has been investigated seems to have been bungled. This article is about a different kind of hero, engineer Michael DeKort, who made extraordinary efforts, which now seem to be bearing fruit, to expose and correct a number of significant defects in Deepwater subsystems.
Another issue was the failure to use properly shielded cables for various communication systems on board the 123's. Without proper shielding, signals are vulnerable to interception. This is a national security issue. There are generally accepted guidelines called "Tempest" standards for guarding against such signal leakage. These were not followed by LM in its work on the 123 cutters.
Because of the nature of the missions undertaken by Coast Guard vessels, subsystems used must be designed to operate properly over a wide range of environmental conditions. For example, units exposed to outside weather must be able to operate at temperatures down to -40 degrees F. DeKort ordered environmental checks on the relevant equipment. The first item tested was the FLIR (Forward Looking Infra Red) unit, used for navigation when visibility was poor. He learned that this unit would fail at -5 degrees F. When he reported this up the management chain, he was told that they would not change the design of record, and that no further tests of this nature should be made. It later became known that many other subsystems did not meet environmental standards.
One incident, related by DeKort in an email to CEO Stevens highlights the differences between higher level LM managers and Michael DeKort. In his words:
In December of 03 the security inspector for the CG performed an inspection of our boat and said, in his report, that he noticed the implementation, with 4 fixed cameras, was different than he was used to seeing, but it looked like he had 360 deg coverage. I felt this open the issue back up. I immediately went to management and suggested we tell that inspector that we had less than 360 deg coverage and see what he wanted to do. I was then told, in a room with witnesses, that if he thought he had 360 deg we weren't going to tell him otherwise and that it was his fault he made a mistake and ran a faulty test. I told the group I thought that approach was unethical and put the USCG and LM at risk.In August of 2004 DeKort was transferred to another division of the company. But he continued to call attention to the Deepwater issues. Two years later, he was discharged by LM.
A fundamental problem with the Deepwater Program is the unusual way that it was organized. Integrated Coast Guard Systems (ICGS) was formed as a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. It was awarded the Deepwater project to manage in complete detail, with minimal Coast Guard oversight. The idea was that ICGS, having a deep understanding of the technology, would be able to provide the Coast Guard with the most advanced systems in the most efficient way. What actually happened, in the words of CBS correspondent Steve Kroft, is that, "the $24 billion project has turned into a fiasco that has set new standards for incompetence".
A compounding factor that probably increased the degree to which the interests of the Coast Guard were compromised, not to mention the inflated monetary cost, is the well known revolving door process that has led to so much grief with respect to military contracts. That is, high-level company executives take governmental positions where they can influence the awarding and/or monitoring of contracts with their former (and often also future) employers, and military officers retire to assume positions with companies whose contracts they monitored or helped award. The extent to which this has happened in connection with the Deepwater project is outlined in a recent news article, Coast Guard's Purchasing Raises Conflict-of-Interest Flags.
The question here is not whether we are contractually or legally covered--it is whether or not we are doing the right thing. In the court of public opinion or if reviewed by experts in the industry or under the scrutiny of a federal investigation would it be viewed that we met our moral, ethical and professional obligations?DeKort went to great lengths to follow company rules about handling disputes, and to give LM every opportunity to correct its errors quietly, at minimal cost in terms of money and reputation. None of his colleagues or organizational superiors gave him any support during this struggle. But, no matter how often he was rebuffed, he never gave up. In my judgment, he displayed great strength of character, acting courageously in the highest traditions of engineering professionalism, under the most difficult circumstances.
Michael DeKort was a lead engineer working for a prime contractor on the Deepwater Project, whose purpose was to modernize the US Coast Guard fleet. Joining when the 123-foot patrol boat project was at an advanced state, he discovered several bad decisions endangering Coast Guard sailors and compromising their ability to carry out missions. One decision posed a potential threat to national security. When his efforts to correct these problems were rebuffed, he exhausted all appeals procedures within the company and eventually outside, even after being removed from the project and eventually being fired. His allegations were subsequently validated by the cognizant investigatory agency.
Michael DeKort's courageous and competent adherence to the highest ethical standards under difficult conditions set an inspiring example for his fellow engineers.
House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Transcript of House Hearing on Deepwater (pdf file), April 18, 2007
Spencer S. Hsu and Renae Merle, Coast Guard's Purchasing Raises Conflict-of-Interest Flags, Washington Post, March 25, 2007, Page A09
International Herald Tribune, "Ships that don't dare to sail", December 14, 2006
Steve Kroft, 60 Minutes--The Troubled Waters Of "Deepwater", May 17, 2007
Richard L. Skinner, Homeland Security Inspector General Report, February 9, 2007
Comments can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu
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