Push begins to make Coasties part of the Pentagon

Washington -- If one California congressman has his way, the US Coast Guard will begin asking for what it needs to grow into a more effective force and begin building a fleet of six Arctic icebreakers.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House subcommittee on the Coast Guard, is asking the service for a list of its unfunded priorities. In conversation, Hunter also is hoping the service adds in all six icebreakers it has identified as necessary to carry out duties in the Arctic.

"It is my sincere hope," Hunter wrote in a Feb. 10 letter to Coast Guard commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft, "that the Coast Guard will utilize this opportunity to provide an expansive itemization of priorities, and not withhold any potential unfunded requirement that, in the absence of funding, could serve to the detriment of the Coast Guard."

The operative word in the request is "expansive," said Joe Kasper, Hunter's chief of staff.

"You need six icebreakers," Kasper said. "If a list is produced without the six icebreakers people are going to be having doubts about the Coast Guard's need for an icebreaker."

Hunter is pushing back on the previous administration's Office of Management and Budget, Kasper said, which routinely did not support putting place a full six-ship icebreaker procurement program. He's also working to include the Coast Guard in the proposed largesse of the Trump administration's push to greatly expand spending on the military services.

"There is no reason the Coast Guard should not have all six icebreakers listed there," Kasper said. "If they don't ask for them, they might not get them."

Another asset Hunter and Kasper would like to see the Coast Guard agitating for are unmanned aerial aircraft. Kasper noted that Coasties often request the use of unmanned aerial systems operated by the Customs and Border Patrol – another agency that, like the Coast Guard, is part of the Department of Homeland Services.

"The Coast Guard is routinely denied use of assets by CBP," Kasper said. "Rarely has the Coast Guard requested a UAS and it has gone up in the air strictly for Coast Guard purview and the Coast Guard mission."

Hunter, Kasper said, is also pushing to move the service into the Pentagon's military structure.

"Pretty soon you're going to see Hunter moving to take the Coast Guard out of DHS to the Defense Department," Kasper said.

"The Coast Guard buys boats just like the Navy and aircraft and equipment just like any of the military services," he pointed out. "The whole acquisition process would become more efficient."

And Homeland Security, Kasper noted, simply doesn’t do major acquisition programs.

"We’ve been working hard with the Coast Guard to accelerate the icebreaker schedule," Kasper said. "DHS doesn’t have experience here and can’t get the job done. But the Navy does."

Hunter also is looking to weaponized some Coast Guard ships to supplement Navy missions, particularly the big, frigate-sized National Security Cutters and slightly smaller Offshore Patrol Cutters. Despite the Coast Guard’s navigational, lifesaving and law enforcement duties, Kasper said, Hunter feels the service would benefit from the military association.

"Even if the Coast Guard would stay where it is, now is the time to make sure the Coast Guard is viewed not just as an extension of US law enforcement but also as a military service," Kasper said.

"We’re trying to instill some courage in the Coast Guard," he added. "They’re taking on a bigger role, doing more things. We’re talking about the Arctic, about inland waterways. Until you ask for it, it is going to be increasingly difficult for us on the Hill to sound the need. There is no confusion around the Navy’s fleet size, there’s good awareness on where the Navy needs to be. The Navy knows how to play this game, to advocate for its needs.  Until you start getting out in front and making the case for where you need to be and not worrying about the effect on your budget, you’re never going to get what you need."

Kasper said a response to the unfunded requirement list is expected within a week or two.

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