Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. became the 24th commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard as the service prepares to take on more complex and challenging missions against a backdrop of tighter budgets and rising costs.
The commandant, who spoke with National Defense in a recent interview, says he wants to stay the course with the major modernization programs that his predecessors launched, but he cautions that budget pressures could put some projects at risk of more delays and cutbacks.
Of most concern is Deepwater, the Coast Guard’s lengthy and expensive acquisition program that has been plagued by cost overruns and schedule slips. Many of the service’s ships and boats are nearing a half-century in age. Six months into his first year at the helm of the Coast Guard, Papp says he will fight to keep modernization programs on track despite a fiscally constrained environment. But he acknowledged that this is easier said than done.
The admiral spoke about the Coast Guard’s aging ship fleet, crumbling shore infrastructure and the struggle to apportion a $10 billion budget for buying new platforms, maintaining old ones and performing missions. Taking fixed costs out of the equation, “you get down to the point where you’ve got about $6 billion for the operation of the Coast Guard and about $1.4 billion that we’re spending on acquisitions,” Papp said.
Considering that one National Security Cutter takes up about half the acquisition funds for a year, a host of Coast Guard projects end up on the back burner — 40-year-old ships, patrol boats that are falling apart, sidelined icebreakers and shore facilities that date back to the 19th and even 18th centuries, Papp said. There is about a $2 billion backlog for updating shore infrastructure, he added.
In addition to the Coast Guard’s struggles to upgrade its equipment and facilities, Papp must deal with emerging operational challenges, such as growing terrorist threats and the opening of waterways up north. Warmer temperatures are causing the polar ice caps to shrink, Navy scientists have warned. As of now, the Coast Guard has no infrastructure in the Arctic and must develop a plan to deal with increased traffic in the previously impenetrable waterways.
“The Arctic is going to be a big challenge for us. We have to do more than think about it. We’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years. We need to act,” Papp said. “I would say that the Canadians are actually better prepared at this point to respond to activities in the Arctic than we are.”
During a wide-ranging interview, the admiral discussed efforts to field an unmanned air vehicle and “green” initiatives to cut back on energy use. He also talked about his plans to seek additional funds from Congress to support the Coast Guard’s expanding mission portfolio.
“There’s no other organization that has the authorities and competencies to carry out that broad range of missions,” Papp said. “We’ll just continue to press on making the case for the need to recapitalize and keep our Coast Guard strong.”
For additional details on Adm. Papp’s plans for modernizing the Coast Guard and coping with a changing world, check out the January 2011 issue of National Defense.