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Rescuing the Coast Guard From Chronically Low Budgets 

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By Stew Magnuson 

Everyone loves the Coast Guard, but that affection hasn’t translated into a budget that can sustain its ships, aircraft and personnel, said some of the service’s former leaders.

“Support on Capitol Hill is about five miles wide and one inch deep,” said retired vice commandant, Terry Cross, who is now a vice president at EADS North America. “No one is going to go to the mat for the Coast Guard.”

The service saw its proposed 2011 budget cut by 3 percent. Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center of American Progress, said that is going in the opposite direction of what is needed. In a new report, “Building a U.S. Coast Guard for the 21st Century,” he proposed adding $5 billion to its $10.1 billion budget.

“If the Coast Guard’s budget is authorized and appropriated as proposed, its total budget next fiscal year will be lower than that of next year’s total purchase of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters by the Department of Defense — next generation aircraft that are not needed in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he wrote in the report with co-authors Sean Duggan and Laura Conley.

The agency has law enforcement, homeland defense, search-and-rescue and regulatory duties.

The service’s aging fleet requires this massive influx of cash, Korb said at a panel discussion at the center.

The recent relief efforts in Haiti after its devastating earthquake in January showed both the service’s responsiveness to emergencies, but also some of its shortcomings. One of its cutters arrived on the scene less than 24 hours after the disaster. But 12 of the 19 cutters that were eventually sent there required emergency maintenance, and two had to be recalled for dry-dock repairs. Helicopters that would have been used for rescues were retasked to fly in spare parts for the cutters.

Congress’ piecemeal approach to funding new ships and aircraft forces the service to pay more, Cross said. The ability to do multiyear procurement might save taxpayers 6 to 10 percent because buying larger quantities is more cost efficient than acquiring one ship per year.

One proposal is to allow the Coast Guard to have civilian leadership. There are secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy. A secretary of the Coast Guard would be a strong advocate on Capitol Hill for the service, panelists said. The Coast Guard commandant should also be a voting member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the report.

James Hull, a retired vice admiral and now chairman of the Navy League’s Coast Guard affairs committee, said the service has been too reticent in demanding what it needs from lawmakers.

“You can’t be boy scouts in a den of wolves,” he said.

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