In recent years, observers have worried the U.S. Coast Guard hasn’t sought to buy enough new cutters and aircraft to meet its future mission needs.
A new report by one of America’s top naval analysts, Ron O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service, puts numbers to the issue, showing that the Coast Guard is planning to procure only 61 percent of the cutters that the service calculates it will need to fully perform its 11 statutory missions in coming years. It also suggests that unless Coast Guard acquisition funding increases from current levels, the service could fall well short of even that planned number.
The Obama administration is requesting just under $10 billion for the Coast Guard in 2013, including $1.2 billion (less than the cost of a Navy destroyer) to buy cutters, aircraft and supporting systems. Service leaders say they need $2 billion a year in acquisition funding to properly modernize their aging force.
While it’s good news that the Coast Guard in its 2013 budget plan has finally included funding for a new polar icebreaker, the administration’s decision to strip funding for the last two of eight National Security Cutters was a potentially catastrophic blunder. At worst, it would leave only six new NSCs to replace 12 Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters that date from the 1960s. At best, it will merely drive up the cost of the last two NSCs by separating their production from the first six ships in the class.
This situation is partly of the Coast Guard’s own making. For decades, the service has prided itself on being able to perform its many missions on less funding than it needs to sustain itself over the long run. The service’s never-say-no approach is laudible, but it has trained policymakers and the public that underfunding the Coast Guard has no consequences, and that the service can always find a way to absorb more cuts.
This situation is unsustainable, and it is taking place as competition for maritime resources — fisheries, oil and gas — increases, and as climate change is opening the Arctic to increased navigation and exploitation.
America’s maritime exclusive economic zone — the largest of any country in the world — extends from the far reaches of the Pacific to the Caribbean, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic. A cutter can only be in one place at a time, and right now, there are parts of that vast EEZ that aren’t fully protected against illegal fishing operations by foreign vessels.
The Coast Guard’s 11 statutory missions are critical national security, public safety, economic activity and protection of U.S. national resources. Chronically underfunding the Coast Guard in the hopes that its people will somehow find a way to continue overcoming its lack of assets is strategically and economically short-sighted.