Magazine article National Defense

Commandant: Coast Guard Suffering under Strain of Tight Budgets

Magazine article National Defense

Commandant: Coast Guard Suffering under Strain of Tight Budgets

Article excerpt

The Coast Guard's new commandant has a familiar message for industry, Congress and the president of the United States.

It is the same message carried by previous commandants and one that comes second nature to Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the leader of the most cash-strapped branch of the military.

"We have kicked the can down the road for too many years," he told National Defense. "We're suffering significant degradation in our ability to respond to the needs of this country in the nation's waters."


Put simply, the service has a lot of old ships and boats and nowhere near the money required to replace them. It also has a growing number of missions and, some congressmen have said, not nearly enough of the personnel needed to carry them out. Many insiders, like former Coast Guard official Stephen Flynn, believe that a once flattering more-with-less mantra has grown tired and brought the force to the "the breaking point." Papp does not go quite that far, but he knows the odds are stacked against him in the effort to bring the Coast Guard fully into the 21st Century.

It will require healthy doses of perseverance, persuasion and finger crossing, he said.

"Why should the American people, through their Congress, invest in the Coast Guard? I think it's because it's very important that we provide safety, security and stewardship for our nation's waters," said Papp, who was promoted to the helm after Adm. Thad Allen's retirement in May.

"If not us, who else is going to do it?"

No other organization has the authorities to carry out such a broad range of missions, including maritime safety, search and rescue, environmental protection, drug and migrant interdiction, ice operations and general defense activities in conjunction with the Navy: It responds to natural disasters, cleans up oil spills and seizes nearly 500,000 pounds of cocaine and marijuana from drug smugglers each year. Yet its resources for executing these missions are dwindling.

The president's $10 billion fiscal 2011 proposal for the Coast Guard calls for the reduction of 1,100 military personnel and the decommissioning of four high-endurance cutters and one medium-endurance cutter.

There also has been talk of White House budget officials slashing a program that would replace some of the service's older ships. The Coast Guard has been conducting market research for the Offshore Patrol Cutter, which may be in jeopardy before any acquisition efforts begin.

Therein lies what Papp considers his ultimate struggle--the delicate balancing act of deciding how much of an annual $10 billion budget goes to the operation of the service and how much is spent on acquisition. It is the difference between treading water and moving forward, he said.

The Coast Guard has tried different approaches to update and replace its aging equipment over the years. Officials scrapped a much-maligned joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman in 2007 and brought the project in house. The initiative, called Deepwater, is a collection of more than a dozen acquisition programs aimed at modernizing ships and aircraft. Among other things, it calls for 91 new cutters, 124 small boats and 247 modernized airplanes, helicopters and drones. These platforms will replace assets that are growing increasingly expensive to operate and technologically obsolete.

Deepwater has been marred by delays, cost overruns and criticism from politicians and watchdog organizations. Doubts have been raised about whether the service has the personnel to handle such an undertaking. The Coast Guard has 950 military and civilian employees working in its acquisition directorate. However, it has struggled to find qualified candidates and still has many unfilled positions.

The Deepwater program once was estimated to cost $17 billion and be completed by 2018. Last spring, the service's acquisition chief told Congress that the initiative is now figured to cost $27. …

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