Congress Boosts Coast Guard Budget

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

The Coast Guard has often been characterized as perennially underfunded, but thanks to Congress, the service received a major boost to its acquisition accounts for fiscal year 2016.

In the recently passed omnibus budget, Congress allocated the Coast Guard nearly $928 million more in acquisition, construction and improvement funding than it asked for in the president’s fiscal year 2016 budget request. That will go toward a ninth national security cutter, a new polar icebreaker and increased funding for the offshore patrol cutter.

The funding increase comes at a time of growing missions for the service. Over the past year, it has taken on a larger role in patrolling the Western hemisphere as smugglers attempt to bring drugs into the United States. Additionally, as sea ice melts in the Arctic and opens up new waterways, the service — which operates the nation’s polar icebreakers — will play a greater role in the region, officials have said.

The service in January issued a solicitation for a new icebreaker.

“The Coast Guard appreciates the tremendous support of Congress in addressing the service’s priorities of both investing in future capabilities as well as preserving today’s frontline operations,” said Eric Nagel, a spokesman for the sea service. “[This] demonstrates Congress’ recognition of the Coast Guard’s role to secure the homeland and safeguard lives and property in the maritime domain.”

Ashley Godwin, senior defense advisor for the Shipbuilders Council of America, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, said the increased budget would help the Coast Guard meet many of its future acquisition requirements.

“The administration has been doing a lot of lip service to increasing the Coast Guard’s budget but the money hasn’t been there,” she said. “Congress basically said, ‘Well, if you’re not going to do it, we’re going to do it.’ So the increase was dramatic.”

Congress allocated a total of $743.4 million for the national security cutter program — $652 million more than the service asked for in the president’s budget. The bulk of it — $640 million — will go toward the acquisition of a ninth NSC, one more than the program of record called for. Twelve million dollars will go toward top-side engineering design work to deploy small unmanned aerial systems off the ship.

In an interview with National Defense prior to the finalization of the omnibus budget, Rear Adm. Joseph M. Vojvodich, the Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for acquisition and chief acquisition officer, said the service was proud of the work it had done procuring the new cutter. It recently christened the sixth NSC, which will be delivered by the end of 2016. The eighth will be delivered in 2018.

Brian Slattery, a defense and security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said the extra national security cutter was one of the Coast Guard’s biggest wins in the budget. It also came as somewhat of a surprise.

“It did come out of the blue a little bit, but it will definitely be a win for the Coast Guard as long as the subsequent funding for personnel and all the other associated assets that go into that vessel are implemented as well,” he said.

The additional NSC was put into the budget by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Slattery said.

“That appropriation has gotten a little bit of flack from certain media outlets for being an earmark or being excessive because the Coast Guard technically isn’t asking for it,” he said. However, two studies have previously suggested that a ninth NSC was necessary in order for the Coast Guard to perform its missions, he said.

“Even though the Coast Guard program of record is only for eight, that eight number was forced under budget constraints … and nine is certainly a more appropriate number,” he said. “That is going to be very big in terms of the national security cutter being able to provide more capacity and more days at sea in the overall fleet.”

Godwin said she didn’t consider the ninth NSC to be an earmark. Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi is building the ships.

“The naysayers can say, ‘Oh, it’s an earmark,’ but suppliers for shipbuilding are in all 50 states. It’s more than just one shipyard, one state. Shipbuilding is so large. It permeates throughout the U.S.,” she said. “This is good for many, many states [and] many, many employers.”

Congress also appropriated $89 million toward the offshore patrol cutter, $70.5 million above what the service asked for in the president’s budget. The extra funds will go toward commencing phase two of the OPC acquisition process, which would include a downselect to one vendor.

Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft has said the offshore patrol cutter is the service’s top priority. The program calls for a total of 25 vessels to be procured, which will replace aging medium-endurance cutters.

Vojvodich said: “It’s really a priority for us because the medium-endurance cutters are really a workhorse for the fleet … [and] we’re experiencing some reliability issues with that fleet. At some point you’ve got to recapitalize.”

Currently, Bollinger Shipyards Lockport LLC, Eastern Shipbuilding Group Inc. and General Dynamics-Bath Iron Works are vying for the contract. In 2014, the Coast Guard awarded them each a firm fixed-price contract for the preliminary and contract design of the vessel.

Technical proposals were due in January, Vojvodich said. By mid-March all submissions should be complete, and the Coast Guard will begin an evaluation of the technical and pricing data. A downselect will be made by the end of fiscal year 2016, he said. Construction begins in fiscal year 2018 and delivery of the first vessel is slated for fiscal year 2021.

In an effort to save money, the program doesn’t ask industry to produce new, cutting-edge technology, he noted.

“We’ve made that program affordable through … a lot of industry engagement,” he said. “We’re using state-of-the-market technology, so there are no research projects included in that. We made some tough decisions in terms of the capability that we’re going to have.”

For example, both the national security cutter and the fast response cutter have stern-launch capability, which allows small boats to enter and exit from the stern. “To make the thing more affordable, we’re not going to ask industry to do that. We’re not asking industry to have some unique material or some unique hull design. It’s just going to be basic shipbuilding,” he said.

In order to bring costs down the offshore patrol cutter does not have ballistic protection, he said.

Before the budget was released, Godwin said she thought the Coast Guard would have to pick between the offshore patrol cutter and national security cutter. “But they didn’t. They gave them money for both,” she said.

The bill also boosted spending to accelerate the acquisition of a new polar icebreaker. It allocated $2 million more than what was requested in the president’s budget.

The Coast Guard has a statutory requirement to maintain and operate the nation’s polar icebreakers. Currently, only two — the Polar Star, a heavy-duty vessel, and the Healy, a medium-duty vessel primarily used for scientific research — are operational. A third, the Polar Sea, was mothballed after the heavy-duty icebreaker suffered a massive engine failure in 2010.

During remarks in Seward, Alaska, in September, President Barack Obama called for the nation to invest in more icebreakers.

“After World War II, we had seven icebreakers — four under the Navy, three under the Coast Guard. Today, in part because we haven’t been reinvesting, although we technically have three, operationally we really only have two and only one heavy icebreaker,” he said. “Just to give you a sense of contrast, Russia has about 40, and 11 icebreakers either planned or under construction.”

The administration proposed to accelerate the acquisition of a replacement heavy icebreaker to 2020 from 2022. Coast Guard leaders have estimated it will cost $1 billion to build a new icebreaker over 10 years.

However, language in the omnibus budget said the Obama administration was not doing enough.

“The growth of global commerce, scientific research, tourism and other activity in the Arctic region requires a multi-mission icebreaker to sustain a U.S. presence, maintain domain awareness and furnish critical search and rescue capabilities,” the bill said.

“Unfortunately, the Coast Guard’s current fleet of heavy icebreakers is not adequate to meet this expanding mission. Although the administration has now proposed accelerating the acquisition of the first replacement heavy icebreaker, the funding proposed for the Coast Guard’s icebreaker program in fiscal year 2016 inadequately supports this plan,” it said.

Having a sufficient number of polar icebreakers is critical to national security, Vojvodich said. “Without having these heavy icebreakers, we’re going to lose … global access throughout the world.”

The Coast Guard has noted that any funding for a new icebreaker must come from above its topline, he said. “It has been pretty clear that it doesn’t fit,” he said. “We’ve estimated that thing costing over $1 billion, and if you look at our budget, that crowds out just about everything else.”

The Coast Guard is also conducting a study to see whether it is possible to refurbish the Polar Sea, Vojvodich said. The vessel is currently in preservation dry dock to prevent further deterioration.

Zunkunft said the solicitation would help lock down requirements. An industry day is expected in March.

“While we do that work, we’re doing a level of assessment right now in terms of its condition — the hull, the machinery, the piping, the sewage, all the things that come with it,” he said. “We’ll have a fuller picture of what it would take to reactivate that.”

At the moment, it would be speculative to say whether or not it is possible to refurbish Polar Sea, he said.

Both the Polar Star and Polar Sea are 40 years old. Early this decade, the Polar Star was refurbished, giving it an extra seven to 10 years of life. However, parts of the Polar Sea were used during Star’s recapitalization, potentially making it even harder to bring Polar Sea back to service, experts have said.

Slattery suggested the Coast Guard consider purchasing an icebreaker from a foreign country.

“There are a number of foreign nations who build similar vessels, although it is possible that they don’t meet the same capability requirements that … the U.S. is looking for,” he said. “Other than Russia, it appears that many nations are not necessarily building vessels that rise to the level of capability in terms of icebreaking and in terms of sustaining polar weather conditions and things of that nature [as the Polar Star and Polar Sea].”

Many countries — including Finland and South Korea — have “relatively comparable” vessels for “upwards of a third of the cost of what the estimate is for the one to be built in the United States,” he said.

The Coast Guard also plans to make investments in drones. It is currently undergoing a study to assess whether the service should procure unmanned aerial systems and if so, what type, Vojvodich said. The study is looking at Group 2 systems, which weigh 21 to 55 pounds.

“We’re analyzing the technology. We’re certainly trying to understand our need and our requirement — so making sure that we’re not acquiring technology for the sake of the technology,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re solving a problem, filling a gap in terms of our capability.”

UAS could be used for wide-area surveillance over the horizon, he said. Systems must, however, be affordable and sustainable.

The service currently does not own any UAS but partners with a variety of government entities and flies their systems, including those of the Navy and Customs and Border Protection.

In 2014, it worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to simulate an oil spill using oranges, peat moss and environmentally safe green dye. AeroVironment Puma systems — which weigh 13 pounds — were then used for tests.

Photo: Coast Guard

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Shipbuilding

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