Coast Guard May Face Capability Gap On the High Seas
By Stew Magnuson and Eric Beidel
The Obama administration has proposed cutting $1.3 billion out of the Department of Homeland Security’s overall budget. Almost one-third of that — $382 million — would come out of the Coast Guard’s allocation.
For starters, 222 positions at the Washington, D.C., headquarters would be eliminated. Several of its older ships would be decommissioned, and some seasonal bases on the Great Lakes would be shut down.
But it’s the large boats and ships that have leadership the most worried. The administration includes funding for the sixth National Security Cutter and continues preliminary work on the Offshore Patrol Cutter, but there may be capability gaps on the horizon.
Prior to the budget’s release, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp in two separate speeches said he was worried that the service would not be able to finish the planned fleet of eight NSCs, and that it had been a fight to keep these prized programs alive.
The National Security Cutters replace the 378-foot high-endurance cutters that were built between the 1960s and early 1990s. The third NSC was delivered to the Coast Guard last fall. Shortly after, the contract for the fifth was awarded to Huntington Ingalls Industries.
“I want to get all eight,” Papp said at the Surface Navy Association conference. “But each one’s going to be a challenge.”
The cutters are likely to be in competition for money with the service’s Offshore Patrol Cutter. The Coast Guard wants to build 25 of these to replace medium-endurance cutters that are between 25 and 40 years old, some older.
The Coast Guard originally had planned for as many as 16 NSCs and 35 OPCs, Papp said. “We’re not going to get there.”
Both these programs are intended for deep water operations. The future of the nation’s maritime security depends upon ships such as the National Security Cutter that are effective away from the shore, Papp said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference hours before the budget was released.
The service is in good shape with a substantial fleet of patrol boats to deal with threats close to the shore, he said. He also feels comfortable with the assets the service has in the nation’s ports. But there is a security layer he worries about.
“So if you’re inspecting overseas and you have good resources in the ports, you want some sort of middle layer to be able to intercept any threats before they get into your ports,” Papp said. “Unfortunately for us, that is the most expensive layer that we deal with, because in order to do that you have to have stout, capable ships that have high-endurance and speed.”
This “middle layer” of maritime security is hard for the Coast Guard, he said.
The Coast Guard once had 12 high-endurance cutters that could sail the high seas. The 2013 budget proposal calls for decommissioning two of them, cutting them down to seven. They are increasingly expensive to operate, the budget document notes. With the hoped-for seventh and eighth NSCs in doubt because of budget concerns, the shrinking number of legacy ships, as well as the Offshore Patrol Cutter seemingly years away from coming to fruition, the Coast Guard may have an upcoming capability gap on the high seas.
Analysts have begun suggesting that the service terminate the NSC and focus on building the OPCs, Papp said. But each time the Coast Guard conducts a fleet study, the results say it needs more ships, including ones that perform the functions of the National Security Cutter.
Papp did not directly say there would be a gap, but did lament the service’s dwindling resources in terms of patrolling the “middle layer.”
“How do you provide persistent sovereign presence in the offshore waters?” he asked. “You can’t do it with patrol boats. It takes ships and ships are expensive,” he said.
“I just don’t get it — why we’re not building more ships in this country,” he said.
House Homeland Security Committee ranking member Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., reacting to the 2013 budget proposal, said, “Although I am pleased that DHS has found places for efficiencies, I am concerned that key programs may be short-changed — particularly efforts to update the Coast Guard’s aged fleet.”
A committee staffer told National Defense that one of the congressman’s main concerns is that older ships are being decommissioned before new ones can be put in place.