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Coast Guard trying to do more with less, but fleet is aging

Dec. 11, 2012 - 11:56AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
A Coast Guard vessel intercepts a midget submarine used to transport drugs.
A Coast Guard vessel intercepts a midget submarine used to transport drugs. (AFP)

As money gets tight, the Coast Guard is facing an increasingly stark disconnect between what it is supposed to do and what it can afford to do.

Much of its fleet is wearing out, but funding is not keeping pace with what leaders say is needed to complete a long-term modernization drive.

Meanwhile, more is being expected of the agency. In fiscal 2011, more than half of the Coast Guard’s time was spent on homeland security missions such as port security and drug interdiction, with the rest going to buoy-tending and other, more traditional tasks, according to a recent overview by the DHS inspector general.

Stretching the Coast Guard’s resources even thinner is a warming Arctic, where ships are now needed in areas that were once iced in.

“You can say you can do more with less until you’re blue in the face,” said Brian Slattery, a research assistant in defense studies at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank. “But unfortunately, that doesn’t pan out the way you want it to.”

Like much of DHS, the Coast Guard benefited from steady budget growth over the last decade. But that would come to an end under the Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 budget request. Overall discretionary spending would fall by 4 percent to $8.3 billion, with some of the agency’s 11 statutory missions hit considerably harder than others. The largest of those — port, waterways and coastal security — would fall 9 percent to $1.7 billion. Search and rescue operations would drop to $921 million, a 13 percent decline.

But Congress has yet to pass a budget for the Coast Guard and its parent agency, the Homeland Security Department. Like other federal agencies, the Coast Guard is working under a continuing resolution that leaves most spending at last year’s levels through March.

The freeze also hinders new endeavors, such as plans to buy a new heavy polar icebreaker. For 2013, the agency wants $8 million to begin design work on that ship. Under the continuing resolution, the Coast Guard has limited authority to spend money on the project, although it has created a team to spell out requirements, a spokeswoman said.

Much of the remaining cutter and patrol boat fleet is in “generally poor” condition, the Government Accountability Office reported this summer. The Coast Guard’s 378-foot high-endurance cutters, for example, are more than 40 years old, and dozens of other smaller cutters and patrol boats are at or close to the end of their expected service lives. When, for example, the Coast Guard dispatched a dozen cutters and other “legacy” vessels to Haiti after a devastating earthquake two years ago, 10 suffered “severe failures of parts or systems,” the report said. In fiscal 2011, the Coast Guard fell 23 percent short of its target hours for keeping the fleet in operation.

As a result, the Coast Guard is at risk of a “death spiral” in which it can’t protect the environment, ensure waterway safety or keep out illegal drugs and immigrants, Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., chairman of the House maritime transportation subcommittee, warned at a September hearing.

In response, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Ronald Rabago conceded the falloff in operating time, but said commanders can set priorities to make best use of their ships.

Coast Guard officials also balked at GAO’s recommendation to set operating targets more in line with what its fleet can accomplish. The Coast Guard has already stepped up maintenance, they said, and reducing target hours would fail to make use of ships “fully able” to conduct missions.

Despite the service’s traditional “can do” mindset, Coast Guard leaders should force both lawmakers and the Obama administration “to get realistic about what is expected of them and what they can do and at what cost,” said Steve Ellis, a former Coast Guard officer who is vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group.

They may have no choice.

As part of its plan to buy 91 cutters over the next two decades, the Coast Guard needs in the neighborhood of $2 billion per year, Adm. Robert Papp, the commandant, told lawmakers this year. In fiscal 2012, however, the service received less than $1.5 billion for acquisition and is in line for about $1.2 billion under this year’s budget request.

The gap between expectations and reality is particularly visible in the agency’s faltering ability to handle Arctic icebreaking operations.

To meet its legally required missions, the Coast Guard needs three heavy and three medium icebreakers, according to an official analysis cited in a recent Congressional Research Service report. Despite warming temperatures in the polar regions, there are still significant ice-covered areas, the report found, and icebreaking could become even more important as commercial and naval ship traffic increases.

Currently, however, the Coast Guard’s two heavy icebreakers are out of commission and the one medium icebreaker is used mainly for scientific research. Even assuming the Coast Guard gets the $8 million to start design of a new heavy icebreaker this year, it could be a decade before the ship goes into service, according to Papp.

The Coast Guard instead hopes to complete a $63 million renovation and return one of its existing heavy icebreakers to the fleet by late next year.

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