When it comes to needs and wants, the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) tops the Coast Guard’s list.

“Certainly, adding another NSC (National Security Cutter) would increase our capability, but we can’t afford it,” Vice Adm. Charles Michel, Coast Guard Deputy Commandant for Operations, told the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation last week. “We don’t need a ninth NSC, we need to get the OPC under way.”

That vessel, he said, is “essential to insure the security of our homeland.”

That being the case, someone will have to move some numbers around. President Obama proposed $10 billion for the Coast Guard in 2016. The current budget is $10.3 billion.          

“You’re the only department in Homeland Security that got cut,” said committee chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. “Why do you think that is?”

The acquisition account “is always at risk because those are very expensive items,” Michel said. They need $1.5 billion to $2 billion, he said, but they’ll work with the billion level.

The Coast Guard can continue the Fast Response Cutter program (FRC), and finish the NSCs, but they need another $70 million for OPC design work. “If we don’t get that $70 million, then it’s going to fall behind,” he said.

A total of eight 418' NSCs — the largest and most technologically advanced of the Coast Guard’s newest classes of cutters — were planned with the last deliveries in 2017 or 2018. They replace the aging 378' High Endurance Cutters, which have been in service since the 1960s. The Bertholf, the first NSC, entered service in 2009 — two years behind schedule and with a $641 million price tag that was more than double the original estimate. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has said that acquisition costs of the eight NSCs increased from $3.5 billion in 2007 to $5.7 billion in 2014.

The Coast Guard plans to build a total of 25 OPCs at an estimated cost of $10.5 billion.

At an earlier hearing before the same committee, Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft termed the OPC his No. 1 acquisition priority, because it’s essential for catching drug smugglers at sea as well as intercepting undocumented migrants, rescuing mariners, and more.“In the Western Hemisphere, we are witnessing extreme violence in Central America stemming from insidious transnational organized criminal networks,” he said.

Asked what was needed to stop the drugs, Michel said 80% moves by go-fast boats, and the only way to stop them is to shoot out the engines from a helicopter. And that requires nearby vessels to take off from.

Michel has moved equipment into areas frequented by the drug trade. He didn’t give specifics but said there’s been a “significant increase in the number of surface vessels.”

And as the Navy pivots to the Pacific, the Coast Guard backs them up closer to home but can’t send ships to Asia nor solve the big migration problem in the Mediterranean, he said. “There’s only so much Coast Guard to go around.”

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.