Commandant: Coast Guard Suffering Under Strain of Tight Budgets
It is the same message carried by previous commandants and one that comes second nature to Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the leader of the most cash-strapped branch of the military.
“We have kicked the can down the road for too many years,” he told National Defense. “We’re suffering significant degradation in our ability to respond to the needs of this country in the nation’s waters.”
Put simply, the service has a lot of old ships and boats and nowhere near the money required to replace them. It also has a growing number of missions and, some congressmen have said, not nearly enough of the personnel needed to carry them out. Many insiders, like former Coast Guard official Stephen Flynn, believe that a once flattering more-with-less mantra has grown tired and brought the force to the “the breaking point.” Papp does not go quite that far, but he knows the odds are stacked against him in the effort to bring the Coast Guard fully into the 21st Century.
It will require healthy doses of perseverance, persuasion and finger crossing, he said.
“Why should the American people, through their Congress, invest in the Coast Guard? I think it’s because it’s very important that we provide safety, security and stewardship for our nation’s waters,” said Papp, who was promoted to the helm after Adm. Thad Allen’s retirement in May.
“If not us, who else is going to do it?”
No other organization has the authorities to carry out such a broad range of missions, including maritime safety, search and rescue, environmental protection, drug and migrant interdiction, ice operations and general defense activities in conjunction with the Navy. It responds to natural disasters, cleans up oil spills and seizes nearly 500,000 pounds of cocaine and marijuana from drug smugglers each year. Yet its resources for executing these missions are dwindling.
The president’s $10 billion fiscal 2011 proposal for the Coast Guard calls for the reduction of 1,100 military personnel and the decommissioning of four high-endurance cutters and one medium-endurance cutter.
There also has been talk of White House budget officials slashing a program that would replace some of the service’s older ships. The Coast Guard has been conducting market research for the Offshore Patrol Cutter, which may be in jeopardy before any acquisition efforts begin.
Therein lies what Papp considers his ultimate struggle — the delicate balancing act of deciding how much of an annual $10 billion budget goes to the operation of the service and how much is spent on acquisition. It is the difference between treading water and moving forward, he said.
The Coast Guard has tried different approaches to update and replace its aging equipment over the years. Officials scrapped a much-maligned joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman in 2007 and brought the project in house. The initiative, called Deepwater, is a collection of more than a dozen acquisition programs aimed at modernizing ships and aircraft. Among other things, it calls for 91 new cutters, 124 small boats and 247 modernized airplanes, helicopters and drones. These platforms will replace assets that are growing increasingly expensive to operate and technologically obsolete.
Deepwater has been marred by delays, cost overruns and criticism from politicians and watchdog organizations. Doubts have been raised about whether the service has the personnel to handle such an undertaking. The Coast Guard has 950 military and civilian employees working in its acquisition directorate. However, it has struggled to find qualified candidates and still has many unfilled positions.
The Deepwater program once was estimated to cost $17 billion and be completed by 2018. Last spring, the service’s acquisition chief told Congress that the initiative is now figured to cost $27.4 billion and last until 2027. Those numbers could change again soon, as new cost estimates and another timeline are in the works. Before his retirement, Allen all but predicted that the program’s cost would increase yet again.
The flagship of the program is the National Security Cutter, which is replacing the more than 40-year-old high-endurance cutter fleet.
The service in November awarded a $480 million contract to Northrop Grumman to build the fourth National Security Cutter. Northrop built the first two already in operation, and is nearing completion on the third. Each ship is taking about four years from contract award to delivery.
Smaller ships are just as old as the high-endurance cutters. The 210-foot medium-endurance fleet also averages more than 40 years, three decades older than the Navy’s high-endurance ships. The Coast Guard’s newest offshore assets are 270-foot medium-endurance cutters, all more than 20 years old.
“At the rate we’re replacing ships, they’ll be in their 40s by the time we get around to them,” Papp said. “The young Americans who step forward to serve their country deserve better than that. They need reliable modern equipment to carry out dangerous missions at sea. We need to focus on that.”
Relief efforts after the devastating earthquake a year ago in Haiti revealed some of the problems with these old ships. Twelve of the 19 deployed required emergency maintenance, and two had to be recalled for dry-dock repairs. Helicopters that would have been used for rescues were called upon to fly in spare parts for the cutters.
Ships are just part of the story.
The Coast Guard also must replace its 110-foot patrol boats, all of which are “falling apart,” the admiral said. To compensate, the service has begun building a fast-response cutter, 12 of which are on budget. Ultimately, there will be 58 in what Papp said will be a “game-changing” fleet.
The Coast Guard, though, continues to throw money at old equipment. This stopgap is holding things together, but it will not last forever, Papp said. The budget is not that forgiving.
After fixed costs, the Coast Guard has about $6 billion to spend each year on day-to-day operations and about $1.4 billion for acquisitions. A new National Security Cutter eats up nearly half the acquisition funds. The Center for American Progress in a report this past summer suggested adding $5 billion to the president’s proposal for the Coast Guard. The service needs that much more just to keep up with its aging fleet, the report said.
“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,” the report’s authors wrote.
Many domestic security priorities, like boats used to patrol inland rivers and lakes, stay on the backburner. These boats are as old as the high-endurance cutters. Papp admits that the Coast Guard is “not doing so well” with the inland fleet or with crumbling infrastructure ashore.
The Coast Guard still uses buildings employed by the Life Saving Service in the 1800s. Some of its lighthouses date back to the 1700s. It has a $2 billion backlog when it comes to repairing piers, bulkheads, stations and barracks, Papp said.
The president has recommended $865 million to upgrade ships and boats in fiscal 2011, $101 million for aircraft and $155 million for other recapitalization efforts, including improvements at shore sites.
In some places, though, the Coast Guard still has no infrastructure.
Scientists say that warmer temperatures are causing the polar ice cap to shrink, which will open up Arctic waters to shipping traffic and oil exploration. The Coast Guard is being asked to take on increased responsibility in the region with no new money and little to no assets.
“I have zero resources up in the Arctic right now,” Papp said. “Anything that we place up there we take away from other locations in the Coast Guard.”
The Government Accountability Office recently issued a report in which it noted that global climate uncertainties coupled with the Coast Guard’s limited infrastructure would present challenges for Arctic missions. GAO officials visited Alaska and interviewed federal, state and local representatives as part of the study. It found that many were in the dark when it came to the Coast Guard’s plans for the Arctic.
“Some state and local officials believed that the agency had already determined its plan for Arctic operations but had not shared it, and one state official reported that his office and others may be willing to invest in infrastructure that could benefit the Coast Guard if and when they know the agency’s plans,” the GAO report said.
The service has been testing its assets in the Arctic, where an emphasis will be placed on the ability of small response boats to operate in shallow waters. The Coast Guard also will need to refurbish its three icebreakers, Papp said. The two heaviest are sidelined, and a smaller one is used primarily for scientific research.
The Coast Guard has been working on the outreach efforts, too. This past summer it launched Operation Arctic Crossroads, an effort that took personnel to far-reaching villages in northern Alaska. The service is using the opportunity to visit with residents and determine its operational capabilities in the northern locales.
“The Arctic is going to be a big challenge for us,” Papp said. “We have to do more than think about it. We’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years. We need to act.”
It took Canadian authorities a couple of days to reach a cruise ship and oil tanker that ran aground in separate incidents this past summer on their side of the Northwest Passage. “And I would say that the Canadians are actually better prepared at this point to respond to activities in the Arctic than we are,” Papp said.
The Coast Guard’s unfinished work extends to its people. Papp’s predecessor Adm. Thad Allen had begun to reorganize disparate groups and safety offices into regional sectors. There still are groups that have not been assigned. Papp also decided against plans to use just one operational leader in the field. He will continue to employ commanders for both the Atlantic and Pacific areas.
“I did not come in here with any plans for doing a massive reorganization of the Coast Guard or inflicting any more change and churn on the people of the Coast Guard,” Papp said. “I want to finish these projects, and that will allow us to focus on making sure we are delivering the best possible mission service to the American people.”
Completing projects is difficult when funding continues to wane. Former Coast Guard leaders have been outspoken about the lack of support on Capitol Hill. Some have suggested a civilian leader for the service, like the secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy. Others say that the commandant should be a voting member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Papp does not sound any alarms or offer radical ideas. During a November interview with National Defense, he used the same tone of voice to describe potential terrorist tactics on the open sea as he did while explaining how the Coast Guard had neither the money nor the wherewithal to field an unmanned aerial vehicle on its own.
Papp listed four priorities upon taking the commandant post, one of which was to strengthen partnerships. The service will need to do just that to accomplish its goals, including obtaining a surveillance drone for the maritime environment, he said. In the meantime, the admiral will continue to tell the story to anyone willing to listen of a force spread thin and in dire need of attention.
“We’re all hopeful that the economy will improve and changes occur where we get increased emphasis on the security operations of our country in the maritime environment,” Papp said. “We’ll just continue to press on making the case for the need to recapitalize and keep our Coast Guard strong.”