Coast Guard Ship Demand Far Exceeds Funding
The Coast Guard needs dozens of new ships to replace its aging vessels, but is being forced to live with less than half the procurement funding required, the service’s top officer said.
Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp, who will soon retire, said he was cautiously optimistic about the service's modernization plans.
“What I’m doing is living within realities. There are certain a lot things I would like for my people. There are tools I would like to be able to give them. But we don’t find ourselves in that condition right now. … I’m being a pragmatist today," Papp told reporters at a breakfast meeting April 8 in Washington, D.C.
To fully recapitalize the Coast Guard’s ships, aircraft and shore facilities would require a budget of $2.5 billion per year in acquisition funding, Papp said. For last three years, the Coast guard acquisition budget has hovered around $1.4 billion. The budget request being debated now on Capitol Hill for fiscal year 2015 is closer to $1 billion and will stay at that level for at least five years, Papp said. The Congressional Research Service said in a recent study that the Coast guard would need about $1.7 billion per year to fund its shipbuilding wish list.
Last year, the Coast Guard lost $300 million due to sequestration, which caused an immediate 30 percent reduction in operations, Papp said. Drug interdiction was hit hard by the cuts, he added. “For the Coast Guard, millions are important. When sequestration hit, because we have so many mandatory programs … the only place you can absorb those cuts in short order is from operations."
Buying new oceangoing ships is the Coast Guard’s top priority, Papp said.
“You can’t interdict anything if you don’t have something on the surface of the water,” he said.
The service’s workhorse medium-endurance cutters, which were built in the 1960s, need to be replaced, Papp said. There are 33 of those ships in the fleet. They will be replaced with the offshore patrol cutter, which Papp said is his most important acquisition effort. Plans are to purchase 25 OPCs.
Three companies in February were awarded contracts to design versions of the offshore patrol cutter. They are Bollinger Shipyards of Lockport, La., Eastern Shipbuilding Group Inc. of Panama City, Fla. and General Dynamics/Bath Iron Works based in Maine. The contract to build the vessels could be worth up to $10.5 billion.
Papp said the United States also should invest in a new polar icebreaker, but a single ship is estimated to cost $1 billion. A new icebreaker is also a hard sell to budget hawks because it performs a single mission — opening sea lanes at the earth’s poles. But because that mission is helpful for other government, commercial and scientific agencies, Papp said the bill should not be paid by the Coast Guard alone.
“If some top-line relief is found that brings $1 billion to the front, I think it is in the best interest of the country to buy a new breaker,” he said. “But short of that, we’re just going to have to get by on what we have."
The Coast Guard owns three icebreakers, but two of them fell into disrepair and were removed from service. One of them, the Polar Star has since been restored to working order. About $100 million will be spent to restore its sister ship, the Polar Sea, to service when the Polar Star next needs a renovation, Papp said.
There is also a need to upgrade and replace Coast Guard aircraft, Papp said. A program is ongoing to replace Coast guard C-130H aircraft with the updated C-130J model. Papp said the effort is “making good progress” at the pace of one or two aircraft a year.
The Coast Guard needs more medium-range aircraft and had planned to buy 32 HC-144 fixed-wing airplanes but slowed procurement last year when the Air Force offloaded 22 C-27Js. The Coast Guard immediately requested all of them, but was blocked when the U.S. Forest Service also made a bid for them. U.S. Special Operations Command also requested seven C-27Js.
A deal was hatched that transferred seven of the Coast Guard’s C-130s to the Forest Service, which determined the larger aircraft would serve better as tankers to fight forest fires, Papp said. SOCOM would still receive seven C-27Js and the Coast Guard will get 14.
The Coast Guard does not have funds to develop its own unmanned aircraft systems. It has kept watch over Navy drone development and will consider buying existing aircraft, Papp said.
The service has deployed Navy Scan Eagles aboard cutters performing drug interdiction, he added. Coast Guard pilots also have flown Predator drones in cooperation with Customs and Border Protection at Air Station Corpus Christie, Texas.