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Commentary: US Coast Guard deserves military-level funding

February 13, 2017 (Photo Credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Simpson/US Coast Guard)
America’s national defense consists of an intricate network of government entities that occupy unique mission sets that integrate seamlessly and project American power anywhere in the world. It’s often the Navy and Marine Corps, the Army, the Air Force, and the dichotomy of intelligence agencies that receive high praise and credit as the nation’s premier operational components.

Often overlooked in the organizational structure of America’s national defense is the U.S. Coast Guard. Unlike any of the other traditional military services, the Coast Guard is the first line of defense for the nation’s shores and waterways. Without the Coast Guard, America’s vulnerabilities would increase exponentially, not just at the hands of foreign adversaries but from undocumented migrants and drug smugglers whose creativity for new methods of entry are constantly matched by the courage and stamina of the Coast Guard’s men and women.

One of my many priorities as the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, and a U.S. Marine veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is to ensure the Coast Guard is not viewed simply as an extension of domestic law enforcement. The Coast Guard, even though situated under the Department of Homeland Security, is a military organization that deserves its place — with word, respect and funding — among the rest of America’s military under the command of the Department of Defense.

To best appreciate the unique circumstances facing the Coast Guard, compare it to any of the traditional service branches and their sizeable budgets made possible by the allocation of more than $500 billion annually to the Defense Department. In these terms, the Coast Guard’s budget is shoestring — amounting to $10 billion.

US Coast Guard
Some of the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard ship Hamilton stand at attention as they wait for the approximately 26.5 tons of cocaine to be offloaded at Port Everglades on Dec. 15, 2016, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The drugs worth an estimated $715 million were from 27 separate, suspected drug smuggling vessel interdictions and five bale recovery operations by the U.S. Coast Guard, Canadian naval crews and its interagency partners.
Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Coast Guard has done its job well, always doing more with less, no different than the Marine Corps has done since its inception. This is something I know firsthand having served multiple tours as a Marine Corps officer, and it’s something I’ve come to appreciate in close observation of the Coast Guard over time.

The Marine Corps, managing air wings and a complexity of aviation assets, is facing a severe readiness crisis and Congress is now responding. Similarly, we cannot ignore that the Coast Guard is facing readiness shortfalls of its own.

Times have become so dire that crews manning the undersized fleet of icebreaking vessels have resorted to ordering equipment online and raiding aging vessels to maintain a minimum threshold of operability. This again is no different than the Marine Corps, which only recently was left to salvage for aircraft parts in museums. In the modern era, with such high operational demands across the board, this should embarrass anyone with a stake or equity in establishing a strong national defense, and it underscores the renewed urgency to face reality.

Much of these shortfalls can be attributed to the last eight years of the Obama administration and its failures in prioritization. For the Coast Guard, it’s lacked any real advocate outside its own ranks and was routinely rolled by the two previous secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget who viewed the Coast Guard budget more as a nuisance and even a source for reach-back funding for other programs.
This occurred despite the persistent need for six new polar icebreakers to counter Russian and Chinese activity in the Arctic. The last heavy icebreaker was built in the late 1970s and only now is the first of six icebreakers in nascent development, but some factions within government — to include within Congress — are not yet fully convinced of the importance. It’s not the Navy that will patrol the Arctic with icebreakers, it’s the Coast Guard. And as the Navy pivots to the Pacific, it’s the Coast Guard that will fill in and protect anywhere the Navy is unable.

Not only does the Coast Guard need icebreakers, it should have more of the assets, equipment and personnel its needs to do its job as a military service. In that aspect, one idea I am pursuing is the weaponization of a class of vessels beyond those already on the order books to ensure proper supplementation of the Navy mission where needed and to ensure these vessels wherever called can counter any provocation. 

The Coast Guard also lacks its own ground-based unmanned aerial systems and is at the mercy of Customs and Border Protection for these assets. So, this year, I’ll also be looking to delineate a UAS program specifically for the Coast Guard.

Perhaps the time has come to begin the conversation on whether the Coast Guard should be moved to the Department of Defense. During the Obama administration, this would have been prudent. Still a possibility, this might be less necessary. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly knows more about the Coast Guard than any of his predecessors, thanks to his experience as the head of U.S. Southern Command. President Donald Trump will soon also learn the value of the Coast Guard, if not already.

A strong Coast Guard is in America’s interests. It’s time to face the fact that the Coast Guard is a military service and should be funded like one — and for once, there are leaders beyond the Coast Guard who are sure to agree.
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