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Drug Wars Fueling Demand for New Coast Guard Ships

By Thompson, Phillip | National Defense, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Drug Wars Fueling Demand for New Coast Guard Ships


Thompson, Phillip, National Defense


The Coast Guard accounts for about 25 percent of all drug seizures by the U.S. government, but that number represents an interdiction rate of only 11.4 percent of all illegal drugs estimated to cross America's borders. Feeling the pressure of a surging tide of smuggling, the service wants to increase its interdiction rate to 18.7 percent by 2002.

While the specter of "another Vietnam" in Colombia may be news to many Americans, fighting the drug war in the waters surrounding U.S. shores is business as usual to the Coast Guard.

In fact, the Coast Guard battles two fronts in that war-one at sea and one on Capitol Hill.

Ironically, while the U.S. government mulls an aid package to Colombia that would total nearly one-quarter of the Coast Guard's annual budget, the service finds itself increasingly outgunned and outrun by drug dealers-who have vessels, aircraft, radar and communications equipment, designed to elude the Coast Guard's aging ships and planes.

For example, the Coast Guard's cutters will reach the end of their service life in the next 15 years-most are more than 30 years old. The service still operates vessels built during the World War II era. The vessels also face what the service calls a "capability gap." In other words, current cutters lack the speed and sensors needed to effectively detect and apprehend drug smugglers and possess only a limited ability to share tactical information, a key requirement in today's combat environment.

The deficiencies are not restricted to ships. The Coast Guard owns a variety of fixed- and rotary-wing airframes, not all of which are integrated properly with communications suites and sensors. For example, the HH-G5A Dolphin helicopter's sensor capacity is diminished because of payload restrictions. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter can land only on the largest cutters.

The deficiencies are not restricted to the drug interdiction arena. Stretching the Coast Guard even thinner is the growing demand for its involvement in law enforcement regarding fisheries rights on the world's oceans as well as enforcing immigration laws. This is in addition to the Coast Guard's domestic mission of providing search-andrescue services along U.S. coastlines.

Service officials also believe they are being assigned national defense-type missions. Commandant Adm. James Loy is quick to point out that the Coast Guard is in no way trying to become more like the Navy or compete with the "gray hulls." But he also notes that the Coast Guard will find itself increasingly involved in matters of national security overseas. At a recent national-strategy symposium, Loy pointed out that many regional threats articulated in President Clinton's national strategy policy have "significant maritime aspects." These include arms smuggling, drugs, pirates and other terrorists, blockade runners, illegal immigration and fisheries violations, all of which have been in the Coast Guard's domain in one form or another since the inception of the Coast Guard's forerunner, the Revenue Cutter Service, in 1790.

If that is true, it certainly makes a strong case for the Coast Guard to take on those missions that, according to Loy, are along that fine line between military and lawenforcement authority, which is precisely where the Coast Guard resides.

The Coast Guard's woes didn't develop overnight. Years of buying what it could afford rather than what it needed has left the Coast Guard with its mixed bag of ships, aircraft and communications equipment. And not only is that equipment becoming obsolete, but it also is getting worn out, as the operational tempo increases nearly every year. The growing number of missions has prompted Loy to liken his service to an overused knife whose blade grows duller by the day.

Pushed to the Limit

That pace has transformed the service's motto of "Always Prepared" into "Always On The Job," a condition that has pushed people and equipment to the limit.

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