Budget Battle Threatens Coast Guard’s War on Drugs

By Jon Harper
Coast Guard Cutter Lawrence Lawson

Photo: Coast Guard

The ability of the Coast Guard to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States could be further hampered if Congress doesn’t pass a new budget in the coming weeks, the service’s commandant said April 12.

The Coast Guard is already stretched thin as it seeks to interdict shipments of cocaine and other banned substances, Adm. Paul Zukunft noted at a meeting with defense reporters in Washington, D.C.

“It truly is a capacity issue,” he said. “It’s the number of planes, number of ships that we have.”

The Coast Guard is aware of about 80 percent of the maritime flow of drugs in the Eastern Pacific and the Caribbean, he said. Yet there were 580 events where the service didn't have enough ships or enough planes to track the drug traffickers down and apprehend them, he said.

Record high flows of cocaine have been coming out of Colombia destined for the United States, the bulk of which is moved by sea, Zukunft noted.

Federal government agencies are currently operating under a continuing budget resolution, which runs through April 28. If lawmakers fail to break the budget impasse and pass new appropriations bills, the Coast Guard could have fewer assets available to go after drug smugglers, the service chief said.

“If we don’t have an appropriation in 2017, I will have to shut down operations,” he said.

Additionally, a mandate to fund a pay raise for personnel will create a $85 million hole in the budget unless the Coast Guard receives more money, he noted.

“The only way to recoup that savings is you stop flying and you stop sailing, which means you immediately curtail operations,” he said. “Obviously that would impact readiness.”

In the longer term, the Coast Guard plans to address capacity shortfalls by modernizing its fleet of offshore patrol cutters, national security cutters, fast response cutters and icebreakers.

“The good news is, on the acquisition front I’m extremely optimistic,” Zukunft said.
Last year the service awarded a contract to build the first nine of the 25 offshore patrol cutters that it plans to buy. The vessels will “meet our requirements … in an affordable range,” he said.

The Coast Guard has also awarded a contract for the ninth national security cutter, as well as a phase-two contract to build 26 additional fast response cutters, he noted. The program of record calls for the service to procure a total of 58 fast response cutters.

“The last four came off the production line with zero discrepancies, which is very rare in shipbuilding to take delivery of a ship with no discrepancies,” he said.

The United States only has one active heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is in its 40th year of service. The Coast Guard hopes to procure three additional ones to beef up its fleet as shipping activity increases in the Arctic due to climate change.

“We clearly need to accelerate the delivery of heavy icebreakers,” Zukunft said. “That’s currently held up under the continuing resolution. So I am hopeful that we will see an appropriation so we can move that out, because I need to have the first ship delivered … by the year 2023.”


Topics: Maritime Security, Shipbuilding, Budget, Homeland Security

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