Top U.S. Coast Guard officials were back before Congress Tuesday, this time talking about how their already-thin ranks will be spread even thinner to counter mounting threats from Western Hemisphere drug gangs.

Those operations in the Caribbean and littoral waters of Central America have other players, ranging from Dutch and French naval units, to local militaries and coast guards that get assistance from some 6,000 troops with the U.S. Southern Command.

But over the next couple of years, the Coast Guard must dedicate more sea time to the region. U.S. Navy surface units won’t be as involved, owing to the strategic pivot toward Asia and the western Pacific, and the decommissioning of Perry-class frigates.

The last frigate was on patrol this week, said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Karl Schuster, SOUTHCOM’s operations director. Replacements, like the littoral combat ships coming out of the Austal USA yard at Mobile, Ala., won’t be available to SOUTHCOM for three to five years, he said.

Many years of analysis go into calculating the effect of U.S. drug interdiction efforts, which catch just a fraction of the hemisphere’s illicit cocaine production.

“One year of ship operations is about 20 tons removal,” said Vice Adm. Charles Michel, Coast Guard deputy commandant for operations. “It’s the number of capable ships to be brought to the fight.”

Members of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Marine Transportation have been holding hearings that highlight persistent shortchanging of the Coast Guard’s recapitalization program to replace aging vessels.

“How do you bridge the gap?” after the Navy ships leave, committee member Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., asked. “We’ve got a two, maybe three-year period where this is going to be touch and go.”

Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft is planning to increase Coast Guard strength in the region by 50%, both to protect U.S. sea-lanes and help Central American nations fight their slow-burn war with the drug cartels. The U.S. assets there are as capable as any.

“The National Security Cutter is the best ship out there,” Michel said of the new 418-foot class that is replacing 378' high endurance cutters that date to the 1960s.

“But it is expensive, and it is magnitudes more expensive than the Offshore Patrol Cutter,” Michel said. That building program for 25 medium cutters has been slowed by smaller budgets and sequestration.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.