The U.S. Coast Guard Fast Response Cutter Bernard C. Webber cruises on the the Potomac River. Under budget pressure, the service reduced purchase plans this fiscal year for the vessel. (Colin Kelly/Staff)
The Coast Guard has cut the number of smaller patrol boats it intends to buy this year as replacements for its aging fleet, while dropping preliminary funding for the last of eight more-capable national security cutters and providing little money for a needed icebreaker, according to data provided by congressional researchers.
For the 2014 fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, the Obama administration requested a nearly 40 percent cut in the Coast Guard’s capital and acquisition funding, which pays for base construction and ship and aircraft acquisition in 2014.
Several members of the congressional subcommittee that oversees ship acquisitions questioned whether the service would be able to perform its traditional role in future years if these cuts continue.
This year’s requested $951 million capital and acquisition budget is less than half of what the service has said it requires to build a fleet that would meet its growing workload and 37 percent less than funding levels in each of the two most recent fiscal years. Planned cuts here far exceed those in all other Coast Guard funding areas, such as operations and training.
“This is so shortsighted,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., said at a subcommittee hearing earlier this year, contrasting the cuts in shipbuilding money with a congressional decision to funnel billions of dollars to the Afghan military and police.
“Do we not remember what happened on Sept. 11? These few dollars extra we could use for the Coast Guard to be prepared. This is absurd.”
The administration’s budget request excludes additional cuts of about 5 percent required by the budget sequester for this fiscal year, and each year after until 2021, unless Congress acts to end it. The sequester, enacted after a congressional committee failed to agree on targeted deficit reduction measures, requires additional across-the-board cuts in most federal agencies and in all military branches.
The elimination of long-lead funding for the final national security cutter from this fiscal year’s budget saves money in the short term, but at the expense of causing potential cost overruns in future years and delaying the ship by as much as a year, according to Vice Adm. John Currier, Coast Guard vice commandant.
Decisions to cut the number of smaller fast response cutters will also reduce economies of scale and eventually cost the service more.
The final national security cutter is fully funded in the service’s five-year plan, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard.
The service had planned to buy six fast response cutters this fiscal year, but due to budget pressures, it requested just two.
National security cutters cost about $684 million a piece; fast response cutters cost $73 million.
As part of its modernization plan, the Coast Guard intends to purchase 91 new ships to replace cutters in its aging fleet, some of which are more than 50 years old.
Currier told lawmakers that the weakest link in the Coast Guard’s capabilities is its offshore fleet because the older ships are far less capable and more difficult to maintain.
“The current budget demands of us tough choices,” he told the subcommittee, “As we are under fiscal duress like everyone else is in the federal government we are going to make triage like choices to go to the area of highest risk and spend the critical capital that we receive.”