The Coast Guard was in the spotlight in Washington this week, with a focus on its budget on Capitol Hill and Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft’s first “State of the Coast Guard”address.
Both events underscored the evolving roles of the Coast Guard far beyond the traditional duties of search and rescue, fisheries and drug enforcement, ship inspections and recreational boating oversight. After 9/11, the agency was subject to widespread criticism that it was veering too far into Homeland Security, as it moved from the Transportation Department to the newly formed Homeland Security Department, and its focus and budget took a sharp turn into anti-terrorism efforts and port and border security.
Today, the agency’s responsibilities continue to broaden into new areas that were not foreseen during the shift toward national security, and that, as the commandant said this week, are putting “unparalleled demands on the service.” Current priorities, he said, are combating organized crime networks, operating in the Polar regions, safeguarding maritime commerce and addressing the rising occurrence of sexual assault within the service.
“Countries in our hemisphere are on the cusp of instability,” Adm. Zukunft said in his address. “The United States leads the world in oil and gas production. The cyber domain is transforming industries and governments at an astonishing rate. Arctic water continue to open. There is no question — the United States Coast Guard is operating in a world unlike ever before.”
The commandant also mentioned how the explosion of energy production and shipbuilding, especially along the Mississippi River, has increased the demand on the entire maritime transportation system. To keep up, the Coast Guard will improve its marine safety workforce and focus on innovative technologies to advance how the nation’s waterways are managed.
All these duties reflect complex and developing threats and economic changes in the U.S., but they are not being met by a serious and supportive budget by the Congress or the Obama administration. Just this week, Republicans and Democrats are coming to blows on Capitol Hill as funding is due to run out on Saturday for the Department of Homeland Security — the parent agency of the Coast Guard — which threatens to shut down the department.
According to an assessment prepared by House Democrats, a DHS shutdown could cause delays in contract negotiations to build the ninth National Security Cutter, as well as delays in maintenance of 225-foot buoy tenders. A compromise will likely be reached at the last minute to avoid a shutdown, but the fact that DHS, and thus the Coast Guard, was singled out in this budget drama is troubling.
And then there’s the Obama administration’s proposed budget for the Coast Guard for fiscal 2016, released last month, which would cut funding by 4% over current levels. Taking a big hit would be the agency’s acquisition budget, which could jeopardize plans to rebuilt the Coast Guard’s aging assets.
The proposal was quickly trashed by House Republicans, who said Obama was playing a “reckless game.” At the budget hearing this week, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who heads the Coast Guard subcommittee, said: “If the president is going to continue to propose these cuts year after year, he needs to tell us how he intends to rescope the missions of the Coast Guard to reflect his reduced budgets.” So far, no such discussion has occurred.
While acknowledging that “aging platforms and crumbling infrastructure continue to hinder mission success,” Zukunft outlined an ambitious plan to deal with the challenges. A big part of this plan is an expensive rebuilding of the aging fleet of cutters, which have been kept in service through the tireless efforts of their crews. Progress has been made in replacing many old ships, but the resources just haven’t been there to get the job done. The admiral pointed out that the Service has lost nearly 40% of its acquisition budget over the last four years.
At the heart of dealing with new coastal threats will be the Offshore Patrol Cutter, which has become the Coast Guard’s No. 1 acquisition investment priority. Building these vessels will be hard to achieve if the Coast Guard undergoes budget cuts or faces uncertain funding that disrupts shipbuilding contracts.
The funding future is now in the hands of Congress, which must weigh national priorities and make the final budget decisions.