Ex-Engineer of the Year to head Deepwater

Rear Adm. Ronald J. Rábago will be directing the Coast Guard’s efforts to reassert control over its $24 billion modernization program. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Promising to develop in-house acquisitions expertise, the Coast Guard has tapped a former Engineer of the Year to take over leadership of its troubled Deepwater program.

Rear Adm. Ronald J. Rábago is the new program executive officer of the 25-year effort to modernize the Coast Guard’s fleet of ships, aircraft and electronics. The $24 billion program has been marred by unseaworthy vessels and cost overruns, prompting a congressional uproar over the use of the private sector to manage the project.

In an interview with Professional Mariner, Rábago said he’s ready to lead reforms, including contract and organizational change, asset delivery and internal partnerships. He said the Coast Guard itself is fully committed to managing Deepwater rather than delegating that function to Integrated Coast Guard Systems, a private sector venture.

“There’s no doubt about it. We are in charge of this acquisition, and we are taking a more direct role in how it’s going,” Rábago said. “We are being much more directive and specific in what we are asking for from industry.”

In July Rábago, 50, replaced Rear Adm. Gary Blore as program executive officer of Deepwater. Blore was named assistant commandant for acquisition and chief acquisition officer.

A licensed professional engineer, Rábago is a 1978 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He earned master’s degrees in naval architecture and marine engineering, mechanical engineering, and national security and strategic studies.

Most recently, Rábago was director of personnel management at Coast Guard headquarters. Before that, he was deputy commander of Maintenance and Logistics Command Atlantic in Norfolk and commanding officer of the Coast Guard Yard at Baltimore.

He earlier had several vessel repair, engineering and inspection assignments. Rábago was the Coast Guard’s Engineer of the Year in 1996.

Rábago assumed the helm of Deepwater at a time of intense congressional scrutiny of the program’s failures — including $100 million spent on a botched refit of eight 110-foot cutters.

Design deficiencies also have plagued efforts to build 58 fast-response cutters and the $564 million national security cutter. In June, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure passed a bill that would bolster government oversight of Deepwater and improve competition among contractors. The sponsor is Rep. Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Marine Transportation. A Senate committee passed a similar bill.

“We will continue to demand strict accountability from both the Deepwater contractors and the Coast Guard — and I believe that accountability for the failure of the 123 program should include return of the American taxpayers’ money,” Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said in July.

Reporting to Blore, Rábago oversees all Coast Guard acquisitions. Among his goals, Rábago said he wants to ensure that the Coast Guard seamlessly integrates the Deepwater assets with the new Rescue 21 national distress network, Nationwide Automatic Identification System and other Coast Guard computer and information systems. As Deepwater equipment is delivered, training of personnel will be vital, he said.

Rábago said the Coast Guard is “finding the right mix” in collaborating with ICGS, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. ICGS had been Deepwater’s lead systems integrator.

“There is going to be some continued relationship, at least for a while, where it makes sense for the Coast Guard to do that …We are doing what makes sense for the Coast Guard and the taxpayer,” Rábago said.    •

By Professional Mariner Staff