21 Jun 2010
US Coast Guard: Bigger Missions, Fewer Dollars
The US Coast Guard is tasked with everything from homeland security to Persian Gulf patrols to Gulf of Mexico emergency management. But the Obama administration wants to cut its budget, writes Peter Buxbaum in Washington for ISN Security Watch.
By Peter A Buxbaum for ISN Security Watch
The US government is demanding more than ever from its Coast Guard. In addition to its traditional domestic search and rescue, drug interdiction, and port security missions, the agency has also been called upon in recent years to conduct counterpiracy missions in the Gulf of Aden and to protect Iraqi petroleum pipelines and shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf.
The Coast Guard, which has been part of the US Department of Homeland Security since 2003, was one of the first US government agencies to respond to January's earthquake disaster in Haiti. In the Gulf of Mexico, the Coast Guard is the US government's lead agency responsible for attempting to stanch the flow of oil from BP's ruptured well.
Besides the untold damage the oil spill is inflicting on the natural environment and wildlife, as well as the beach vacation plans of millions of Americans, the gulf crisis is also affecting trade and boating with the intermittent closures of ports, channels and waterways.
The local Coast Guard commander is designated the "captain of the port" and it is that person who decides when ports and waterways should be closed. Coast Guard Lt Commander Ted Kim, from his perch at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, disseminates early warnings gulf-wide via smartphone messages to Coast Guard and private stakeholders.
"There have been temporary closures here and there," Kim told ISN Security Watch. "There have been no permanent shutdowns of any major gulf port for a prolonged period of time."
Doing more with less
The Coast Guard is unique among US federal agencies, in that it combines the attributes of an armed force, with security and regulatory activities. Yet despite the increasing demands being put on the Coast Guard, the Obama administration has rewarded the agency with a three percent decrease in funding, to $10.1 billion, in the proposed fiscal year 2011 budget it unveiled earlier this year.
The Coast Guard was already smarting from funding and personnel cuts effectuated in the mid-1990s at the end of the Cold War. Some of those funds have since been restored since 9/11, but it was a failure of leadership and acquisitions specialists, say Coast Guard insiders, which led to major fiascoes in the Coast Guard modernization project known as Deepwater.
The current state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue if the Coast Guard is to maintain the accelerated pace and scope of its domestic and international missions, according to a report recently released by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington-based think tank.
"Failure to correct the current imbalance between responsibilities and capabilities will further erode the service’s already dwindling ability to carry out its statutory missions, and deny it the ability to protect this nation against 21st century challenges," said the report.
"It doesn't make sense to have the Coast Guard budget cut when its missions are growing," report co-author Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at CAP, told ISN Security Watch. "Climate change and the melting of the Arctic will only increase Coast Guard responsibilities."
The age and condition of the Coast Guard fleet - the average age of Coast Guard cutters is 40 years - is already affecting the service’s ability to carry out its missions. During the course of the Coast Guard’s Haiti mission earlier this year, 12 of the 19 cutters sent to Haiti required emergency maintenance while two of them had to be recalled from operations. Coast Guard helicopters needed to assist surveillance and rescue missions had to be assigned to transport spare parts and equipment.
The CAP report advocates a number of measures to be undertaken by the US government to improve the Coast Guard's fiscal and organizational position. Among them: bumping up the Coast Guard's budget to $15 billion a year, fully funding the Coast Guard’s asset recapitalization program, and restoring funding for personnel scheduled to be eliminated in 2011. The report also suggests integrating the Coast Guard with the armed services by appointing a civilian secretary of the Coast Guard, allowing the Coast Guard commandant full membership among the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff, and incorporating the Coast Guard within the Department of the Navy.
The question is whether the Coast Guard's woes will capture the attention of the US Congress. Budgetary constraints aside, the agency does not appear to be a key constituency for its congressional paymasters.
"Support for the Coast Guard in Congress is five miles wide and an inch deep," Terry Cross, a former vice commandant of the Coast Guard and now a vice president at EADS North America, told ISN Security Watch. "There is almost nobody who doesn't like the Coast Guard but there is nobody willing to go to the mat for the Coast Guard budget." Cross blamed this state of affairs on the breadth of Coast Guard missions.
Another problem the Coast Guard could encounter in Congress is the memory of the agency's Deepwater modernization woes.
Deepwater, the largest acquisition program in Coast Guard history, began in the mid-1990s when the Coast Guard sought to replace or modernize its aging vessels, aircraft and communications systems. The agency awarded the Deepwater contract in 2002 to a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman only to fire the contractors five years later due to budget, scheduling and performance problems. The Coast Guard has since taken over direct management of the program.
Cross blamed the Deepwater shortfalls on the lack acquisitions expertise within the agency, thanks to earlier budget cuts.
But the US Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, while noting in a February 2010 report that "the Coast Guard has made improvements to its oversight and management of the Deepwater program," nonetheless concluded that "Deepwater continues to present budget and management challenges."
And the Coast Guard may eventually also be called to task for the sluggish national response in the Gulf of Mexico. Said Kim, "The Coast Guard recognizes that there needs to be better coordination and better management of assets."
Peter Buxbaum, a New York- and Washington-based independent journalist, has been writing about defense, security, business and technology for nearly 20 years. His work has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Information Week, Jane’s Defense Weekly, Military Information Technology, Homeland Security, and Computerworld. His website is www.buxbaum1.com.
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