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Interview: Adm. Robert Papp

US Coast Guard Commandant

Nov. 15, 2013 - 02:03PM   |  
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(Thomas Brown/Staff)
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Q. What’s the impact of sequestration and financial uncertainty on the Coast Guard?

A. Well, I’ve been describing this as uncertain in stormy seas in my own sailor terms. Every year I’ve been commandant, each year at a certain point I’ve said this is the worst budget year yet. And I’ve been right every year. Each year has gotten worse. Last year we were faced with a continuing resolution. And then this year we have the continuing resolution, sequestration plus the government shutdown, which makes it very difficult to plan, to train, to keep people motivated and prepared to go out and do very dangerous things. We thought we could get the job done last year with the [fiscal 2013] budget, but sequestration caused us to cut back some of our operations. We don’t know exactly what we’ll have this year. We’re going to be on this continuing resolution for some time to come. And we’re still going along at that sequestration level of operations.

Q. Why have acquisition cuts been made, what does it mean for the force and how do you get it back?

A. I’m sure the cut was made because there are cuts going on across government. Each and every agency, each and every service has to make its case. I am paid to make the case for the Coast Guard. I have publicly said in the past that in order to do all our acquisition programs at the program-of-record level, at the most economic ordering quantity, we would need to be closer to $2 billion to keep us going. We’ve been operating at about $1.3 billion, which is enough to keep us on minimum order quantities for each one of our projects. If we start going below $1.3 billion I have to start cutting programs, and that’s the situation I find myself in.

Q. There are some who suggest that the Coast Guard was punished because it got back the two national security cutters that were cut and so it was basically taken out of hide. Is that a fair characterization?

A. I think you know how things work in Washington. The president proposes a budget. I work for the president; he puts the budget forward. The Congress is the one that appropriates. And I think the Congress has sent some very strong signals that they want the ships built. They have consistently put long-lead money in addition to the construction money for these ships, and they’ve sent a clear signal that they want all eight built. But we’re still in an annual process and I have to go back and fight that battle each year and convince people. And it’s a rigorous process but that’s the way it works. And at a certain point in time, I’m given a top-level line that I have to stay within. We’ll do the best within that, but I also have to answer to Congress, too.

Q. But at what point does the gross mismatch between the resources and the missions mean you have to warn people of the potential deleterious impacts of some of the cuts?

A. Congress has taken a look at our budget that the president recommended and has put things back in the budget. That’s not just the construction money for ships. They’ve also put back patrol boats, aircraft hours, maintenance money, etc., which has helped us to get along. One of my goals is to not reduce the size of the service. So when you try to balance the recapitalization, the construction projects, keep your people, keep them adequately trained and then spend money on operations, at a certain point, you get to that tipping point where you have no other alternative other than to start cutting people or start cutting projects. And I think we’re at that point now.

Q. What do you think you sacrifice? What do you think you shield?

A. Well, an easy thing would be to say last in, first out. We have a large icebreaker program that has been introduced now to build a new polar icebreaker. That was the last one in. That would cost upwards at the high side, $1 billion to build that icebreaker. We’ve been working for about a dozen years to get the offshore patrol cutter, which will be our next big project. I think we have the end of the national security cutter program in sight in terms of getting all eight of them built. My next highest priority is the offshore patrol cutter, those 25 ships that will replace 33 medium endurance cutters that we have right now.

Q. The fast response cutter, you’d hoped to build four or six of those a year to recapitalize the fleet on the smaller size. You’ve got the offshore patrol cutter, which is a larger one that replaces your 270s. Bring us up to speed on what happens with this budget and whether or not you can execute that agenda.

A. The fast response cutter is a substantial leap ahead in terms of patrol boat technology. We’ve got six that are in service right now. We’ve got another 14 or so that are under order. This is a project that is successful and even though the budget that has gone to the Hill each year has either called for just two or four, the Congress has come back and paid for six each year. It’s a very popular project. It’s successful. The costs are stabilized, and I expect to see all 58 of them built. The offshore patrol cutter, we’re going to, within the next six months or so, downselect the three candidates and start detail design on that. And that remains the most important project to get done because it replaces all of our aging, medium endurance cutters that are out there. I believe that if we get the program of record between the patrol boats that are going to be in larger numbers and more substantial, the eight national security cutters for our high end work, and then a very substantial medium endurance cutter, offshore patrol cutter, we’ll be able to work that and carry out missions successfully.

Q. The US Air Force got rid of C-27J transports. There were 14 of them that you guys were interested in getting your hands on. Are you guys going to get those aircraft?

A. Well, we were interested in getting our hands on all 21 of them. Special Operations Command, I believe, is going to get seven of them and some number of aircraft were promised or at least directed to the Forest Service for fire fighting. It’s difficult for me to talk about the details of the negotiations right now but we’re working with the Forest Service to make sure that that is the particular aircraft that would suit their needs. We have C-130s that we can convert and turn over to them that might be better for them. But we have staffs that are working right now. Ideally, out of the remaining aircraft, we’d like to get 14 because that allows us to fully outfit three air stations. Anything less than that and we would have to go back and really re-evaluate the project.

Q. And then you end the purchase of the C295s that you’re doing and you would get those aircraft instead, new built aircraft.

A. We would do a new lay down of aircraft because the C-27J has a lot of the avionics and the engines that our C-130Js have. So there’s a lot of logistics compatibility there that we can gain synergies from. It’s a little bit more capable aircraft. It’s one of the aircraft we looked at when we started the Deepwater project. So we’re going to press ahead and get as many of those as we can.

Q. What’s the right number of ice breakers and how do you get to even getting an icebreaker when you just took a 73 percent cut in that program this year?

A. Well, six is nice and there are reports they probably could support more or less of that. But the goal I set was to get three ice breakers back in service, actually to get two and then start constructing a brand new one. The challenge I faced when I came in as commandant, we didn’t have the operating money in our budget. It had been transferred to the National Science Foundation and they were leasing icebreakers, which caused us to then mothball our icebreakers with the deteriorating effect that that causes. So we’ve got Healy operational, we have Polar Star operational right now, we have the operating money back in our budget. We’re going to deploy Polar Star down to Antarctica to break out for the first time in many years. And we have money in our budget to begin the planning for a new arctic icebreaker.

Q. What’s the role of the Coast Guard in that Pacific pivot strategy?

A. We help where we can. We have our own missions, and we serve as a great role model for many of the developing countries who want to build coast guards or navies. So I welcome the forward deployment of DoD forces, particularly in the United States Navy. But we’ve lost Navy ships in the Eastern Pacific and the Caribbean for drug interdiction. What’s the Coast Guard going to make up for that? So within a few short weeks or months, we’re going to publish a Western Hemisphere strat­egy, which more clearly defines what the Coast Guard intends to do to make sure that our hemisphere is taken care of. ■

By Vago Muradian in Washington.

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