Coast Guard Refocusing Missions Toward Western Hemisphere, Arctic

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
The Coast Guard faces a future of expanded missions around the globe that will force it to reposition much of its fleet to the Western Hemisphere and Arctic region.

Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the service, said he expects to increase the Coast Guard’s presence in the Western Hemisphere by 35 percent.

“The Navy has more fires than it can attend to. As the Navy repositions to the Pacific and there are other demands in the European theater as well, I am repositioning my forces,” he said in January.

When the Navy’s USS Kauffman ends its deployment this September, there will be no more Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates patrolling the Western Hemisphere, Zukunft said. Coast Guard forces will be needed to combat transnational organized crime networks, secure borders and safeguard commerce in the waters surrounding North, Central and South America as well as parts of Oceania, stated the service’s Western Hemisphere strategy released last September.

The transnational crime issue has been simmering for years, but has come to the forefront recently, Zukunft said.

 “Today, eight of 10 of the most violent nations in the world are right here in our backyard in the Western Hemisphere,” he said.

Many of these issues manifested themselves over the summer when the United States faced alarming numbers of unaccompanied immigrant children entering the country illegally, he noted. The source of the influx was largely parents in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador attempting to send their children out of their home countries where violence, unemployment and poverty are rampant, he said.

The situation is grave for those looking to escape the turmoil in these countries, Zukunft noted. One in nine children born in Honduras today will be murdered before his 21st birthday, he said.

In order to stymie the flow of unaccompanied minors, the root causes — violence and poverty — must be addressed, he said.

The Coast Guard is taking an “offensive” approach to tackle transnational organized crime, and using its status as a member of the national intelligence community to gather information, Zukunft said.

However, he lamented that the Coast Guard doesn’t have the resources to stop all the networks. The service has intelligence on 80 percent of the illegal flow — including human trafficking, illegal drugs and illegal fishing — in the Western Hemisphere but not enough resources to stop all of it, he said.

“I [only] have enough interdiction platforms to go after 20 percent of that 80 percent. Sixty percent gets a free pass,” he said.

Insufficient funding is the reason for this “free pass,” he said.

“I’ve got a $10 billion dollar slingshot. This is literally David and Goliath. There is no Budget Control Act that our adversaries suffer [from],” he said.

Transnational organized crime networks generate more than $750 billion annually, Zukunft noted.

The Coast Guard recently performed a surge operation in Honduras to hinder crime and saw the flow of illegal contraband drop. In addition, the murder rate went from 92 per 100,000 people to 66, he said.

The service will need to recapitalize its fleet as it embarks on new and expanded missions around the world, said Brian Slattery, a research associate for defense and security studies at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

“Regardless of where they’re shifting around the globe … without the right platforms and the right number of those platforms, they can’t do their jobs effectively,” he said.

The service is expected to finish procuring its fleet of national security cutters over the coming years. The fourth NSC — the Hamilton — was commissioned in December. Work is currently being completed on the remaining four vessels. The Huntington Ingalls Industries-built NSC has some aviation capabilities, longer endurance and a more durable hull, Slattery noted. It cannot break ice, but can operate in some parts of the Arctic region, he said.

“At least one hull will have to operate off the coast of Alaska or in the Arctic region,” he said. “It will be increasingly important as we take a bigger role in the Arctic.”

Procurement of the offshore patrol cutter will also be a priority, Slattery said. The Coast Guard should be able to meet its goal of 25 ships despite tighter budgets, he said.

Zukunft said the service has tried to make the program as cost-efficient as possible.

“I’ve gone back to my staff and scrubbed every specification that’s on there with a view toward affordability,” he said. “We view this as though I am personally paying for it out of my checking account.”

Last year, the service awarded three firm fixed-price contracts for the preliminary and contract design stage of the vessel to Bollinger Shipyards Lockport LLC, Eastern Shipbuilding Group Inc. and General Dynamics-Bath Iron Works.

The Coast Guard will select a single vendor by fiscal year 2016, said Lt. Cmdr. Joe Klinker, chief of the Coast Guard’s media relations division. The winner will enter phase two of the acquisition program including detailed design and construction. Up to nine OPCs are to be constructed under that contract.

Delivery of the first cutter is slated for fiscal year 2021, he said. The service is set to spend more than $12 billion on the fleet.

Despite smaller budgets, Klinker said the service is committed to acquiring the ship.

“Recapitalization of aging Coast Guard fleet remains a top service priority. The Coast Guard will continue to work with the administration and Congress to ensure it has the capabilities necessary to serve the American public now and in the future,” he said in an email interview with National Defense.

Another key acquisition is a new polar icebreaker. The service has a statutory responsibility to maintain icebreakers for the United States. However, it has only two polar icebreakers in service — the Polar Star and the Healy. The Polar Sea, the Star’s sister ship, is mothballed.

The Polar Star — a heavy-duty vessel that was commissioned in the 1970s — recently came out of a major multi-million dollar refurbishment that gave it an estimated seven to 10 years of additional service. Once that runs out, the service will be left with just the Healy, a medium-duty vessel commissioned primarily for scientific research.

That leaves the service with a conundrum. A new icebreaker has been estimated to cost in excess of $1 billion dollars, a price Coast Guard leadership has said is too steep to front alone.
Zukunft said the service has recently begun considering what it would take to refurbish the Polar Sea.

“We’re still doing an assessment of what would it take to bring a 40-year-old ship back to life and then hopefully keep it on life support for another 10 years,” he said. “But, you know, it’s like that old car that you just don’t want to let go of, and at some point you throw good money after bad. But this is taxpayer money and I want to make sure we make a sound investment.”

Slattery said based on previous reports about the less than optimal condition the Polar Sea is in, and the fact that parts from the ship were used to refurbish the Polar Star, it is troubling that the service is considering it an option.

“The reason that the Polar Star was the vessel chosen to put back into service was because ... the Polar Sea was in such poor shape there was no one considering that to be refurbished,” he said. The situation must have become desperate for the service to consider upgrading the vessel, he noted.

Ashley Godwin, a senior defense advisor at the Shipbuilders Council of America, said it appears that Congress may be interested in refurbishing the Polar Sea.

“Even though the [fiscal year 2015] Homeland Security budget has not passed yet, looking at what is in the bill, it looks like they’re going to include $8 million for preservation of the Polar Sea in anticipation of a future year reactivation,” she said.

Refurbishing the Polar Sea could cost somewhere in the ballpark of $100 million, Godwin said.

As for the polar icebreaker, funding is likely to be zeroed out when the fiscal year 2015 budget bill is passed, she noted. The Coast Guard has “been unable to convince the Congress yet that this is a national priority.”

DHS is currently operating on a continuing resolution that expires at the end of February.
In President Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2016 DHS budget, the Coast Guard said it planned to continue “pre-acquisition activities for a new polar icebreaker,” but did not include further details or funding values.

Zukunft stressed that the need for a second heavy-duty polar icebreaker was critical. He said he loses sleep thinking about what would happen if the Polar Star were to get stuck in the ice.

“I don’t have a buddy system. I can’t call Russia up and say, ‘Will you come save me?’ I don’t think I have that option on the table,” he said. “The United States has no self-rescue for its Arctic missions, its Antarctic mission.”

The icebreaker issue, which has been simmering for years, is particularly important as the United States is slated to take over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council this year. The organization is a multi-national group that encompasses Arctic states, including the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.

According to a Coast Guard icebreaker chart, some member nations have more than 10 times the number of polar icebreakers than the United States. Russia has 40 polar icebreakers, including both government-run and commercial vessels, with more in the works. Finland has seven and Sweden and Canada both have six.

In 2013, the Coast Guard released an Arctic strategy meant to guide its actions in the area over the following 10 years.

Melting ice in the region, caused by climate change, is exposing the resource-rich area to increased economic development, the report said.

“These resources [in the Arctic] include an estimated 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 percent of undiscovered gas and some $1 trillion dollars worth of minerals including gold, zinc, palladium, nickel, platinum, lead, rare-earth minerals and gem-quality diamonds,” the report said.

Additionally, 50 percent of the United States’ fish stock is found off of Alaska, the report said.

The Arctic shipping lanes may one day emerge as a rival for the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal and the Northern Sea Route, Godwin noted. However, just because it is faster to get from Point A to Point B, does not mean it is necessarily cheaper to sail in that environment. Commercial operators will have to pay extra for insurance as well as hire escort vessels, she said.

The Coast Guard said it intends to improve awareness of maritime activities in the region, modernize its governance of the area and build partnerships across the public and private sector.

Topics: Shipbuilding

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