Can the Coast Guard handle its load?
WASHINGTON - At its first oversight hearing of the new Congress, leadership of the House Coast Guard subcommittee has focused on how well the service is handling its heavy load of assigned missions.
Vice Adm. Peter Neffenger, deputy commandant for operations, told the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee that despite tight budgets, aging and failing equipment and multiple assignments, the service has balanced its missions by giving more responsibilities to regional sectors, relocating assets and personnel in response to emergencies and partnering with non-government entities.
He said the Coast Guard uses a “prevent-respond strategic concept” that is implemented through Coast Guard geographic sectors. Coast Guard Sector commanders, for example, have broad authority over many domains, such as enforcing port safety, security and marine environmental protection regulations, inspecting commercial ships and mariners and overseeing hazardous spill response, search and rescue and maritime security.
“The framework of prevention, response, partnership and integrated, layered operations helps to effectively govern the U.S. maritime domain and reduce risk,” he said.
Just the same, certain Coast Guard missions suffer when the agency must move its equipment and people to respond to manmade or natural disasters, such as hurricanes and oil spills. In 2005, the Coast Guard positioned hundreds of assets, including 40 percent of its helicopter fleet and over 5,000 personnel, to the Gulf to respond to Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, the Coast Guard led response and humanitarian efforts after the earthquake in Haiti, and in April 2010, moved over 150 assets and 7,500 personnel to the Gulf for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup.
“Each time the Coast Guard surges assets and personnel to respond to an emergency, it take those resources away from a programmed mission,” according to a brief prepared by the House Coast Guard subcommittee in advance of the hearing. “As a result, funding and resource hours are reduced and performance suffers for certain missions,” the committee said. “For instance, surging assets and personnel to respond to the Haitian earthquake and the Deepwater Horizon spill results in a reduction to resource hours (number of light hours for aircraft and underway hours for vessels) and funding for aids-to-navigation, drug interdiction and ports, waterways and coastal security in 2010.”
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard appears to be doing a better job of more evenly distributing its funds and resource hours between its security and non-security duties. In fiscal year 2011, an Inspector General report found that the agency was spending 50.4 percent of its budget on homeland security and 49.6 percent on non-security work. The use of resource hours was similar — 52 percent was used on security and 48 percent non-security in fiscal 2011. This compares to the years after 9/11 when there was a large funding and resource shift to homeland security.
But by far the biggest challenge to maintaining a mission balance is keeping an aging fleet in constant operation. Vessels broke down on their way to Haiti, for example, and the IG report indicates that the total number of resource hours had fallen by 12 percent over the past five years, due to cutters and aircraft being out of service for maintenance or breakdowns.
Neffenger said this is improving now that assets are being replaced under the Coast Guard’s recapitalization program, formally known as Deepwater, including a new National Security Cutter, fast response cutters, and the Rescue 21 communications system. “These are improving the Coast Guard’s ability to operate in the offshore, coastal and inland domain with improved speed, coverage, reliability and safety,” he said.
In response to questions from committee members, Neffenger said that the Coast Guard is expected to take a 25 percent cut in its budget if automatic sequester cuts go into effect on Friday.
“There will be an impact on our ability to operate,” but he added that security and emergency response would not suffer. He predicted that maintenance on assets would likely be deferred to save money, and that the Coast Guard will be relying more on its outside partnerships to get things done.