With $25 million added by Congress in the 2018 budget, the Coast Guard can move ahead with designing its new class of waterway commerce cutters to replace an aged inland fleet, Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz told members of Congress Wednesday.
“I’ve got ships in that fleet that are 72 years old,” said Schultz, referring to the 100’ cutter Smilax, during his first appearance as commandant before the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.
Billed as an update on Coast Guard infrastructure needs, the hearing was also the first as chairman for Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., who was appointed by as a replacement for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who is under a cloud with his indictment on charges of misusing campaign funds.
Schultz, who succeeded former commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft in June, reiterated his old boss’ reporting on the backlog of work needed to update shore side infrastructure.
“We haven’t gotten the shore infrastructure dollars we need” after seven to eight years of deficit-reduction efforts, said Schultz.
But the Coast Guard is seeing better times with its recent budget of $12 billion, an all-time high that was won by supporters in Congress after a tentative 2017 move by administration budget planners to cut the service budget by 14%.
There is real momentum in the fleet recapitalization program, aiming for a new heavy icebreaker by 2023, and with Congress potentially funding a 12th national security cutter, Schultz told the committee.
The first contract award is imminent for what will be 25 offshore patrol cutters, and meanwhile the fast response cutters – 154’ replacements for the old Island-class patrol boats – are exceeding all expectations, he said.
“We just pushed one of them out of Hawaii past Guam, 2,000 miles, which we could never do with the Island class,” said Schultz.
The waterway commerce cutter is the next design to be drawn, in consultation with the Corps of Engineers and inland waterway users, said Schultz. That class will replace a “hodgepodge” of 35 old buoy tenders and other boats, and two requests for information (RFIs) have been put out to industry to solicit ideas, he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., asked Schultz how he is dealing with complaints of racial bias at the Coast Guard Academy, saying that “the Coast Guard seems to struggle with diversity.”
Schultz said the service is continuing to investigate bias complaints, and said he is committed to ensuring equal opportunities. While the 2018 graduating class included 18 African Americans, their overall enrollment is around 5% of the cadet classes “so we still have room to go,” he said.
“I am personally invested in this,” he added.