Pay some now, or pay more later. That truism about investment and maintenance was at the center of Thursday’s Congressional hearing on the Coast Guard’s long struggle to update its fleet, with a budget that's just a fraction of the gargantuan U.S. military spending.

Next year the Coast Guard will award a competitive design contract for its new Offshore Patrol Cutter, a concept that survived the service’s Deepwater fleet redesign failure of the last decade.

It can’t come too soon to replace the Coast Guard’s medium endurance cutters, 270’ and 210’ vessels that date back as far as the 1960s, said James Offutt, president of the Navy League.

“The old ones can’t be run effectively, and in some cases, can’t be run safely,” Offutt told members of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

The subcommittee is a usually friendly venue for the Coast Guard. Its members tend to come from coastal districts with important maritime industries, and they try to get the service what it needs. It’s the rest of Congress and the White House that can be a problem.

As it stands for fiscal year 2016, the Coast Guard’s Capital Investment Plan “is nothing more than a roadmap to additional acquisition delays, increased costs for taxpayers, and ongoing mission performance failures,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif..

“I have said for some time now, if the president is going to send us budgets that fail to pay for the assets needed to meet Coast Guard mission requirements, then it is time for him to review those mission requirements,” Hunter said. The subcommittee is looking to get a revised Mission Need Statement from the Coast Guard in July, he said.

Both the Coast Guard and the General Accounting Office say reduced acquisition budgets are costing taxpayers more money in the long run, by delaying new ships that are inevitably needed and driving up total costs.

For all the talk of expanding commerce in the Arctic, the Coast Guard is still short of icebreaking capability in the highest latitudes, and years away from building a new class. Thus, the service is looking at perhaps updating the Polar Sea, its 1977-built icebreaker that’s been laid up at Seattle for five years.

Tight money and making do is an old story for the Coast Guard. Rear Adm. Bruce Baffer, the assistant commandant for acquisition, ruefully remembered serving on one cutter in Florida that had so many equipment issues it could not even deploy from Port Canaveral to search after the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986.

‘There was lead paint, asbestos … We went through two years when we couldn’t take showers, because we couldn’t make water,” Baffer said. But as it always strives to, the Coast Guard kept working with the ship and “it’s in much better shape now,” he said.  

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.