Most agree that the Coast Guard needs to replace its aging assets. But the service gets barely three-quarters of the more than $2 billion it needs annually to replace these assets. If that continues, it will lead to serious gaps in the Coast Guard’s cutter fleet, river buoy tenders and air operations, a new report from the General Accounting Office warns.

In the past five years of shortchanged capital budgets, “the Coast Guard has responded by annually delaying or reducing its capability,” the GAO report says.

“The Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have taken some steps to address these affordability issues, but as yet these efforts have not led to the types of significant trade-off decisions among resources and needs that would improve the long-term outlook of the Coast Guard’s acquisition portfolio,” according to the report.

GAO auditors reiterated their 2014 call for a comprehensive, 20-year capital plan looking forward into the mid-2030s. Without it, the Coast Guard could lose some strength in its ships, as 270' and 210' medium endurance cutters finally age out of the fleet during the 2020s before the new class of Offshore Patrol Cutters is completed, the report shows.

That would happen even if the Coast Guard attempts to extend the life of old cutters by 10 or 15 years, the report says. Meanwhile, there’s no formal plan at all for replacing the aging river buoy tender fleet, at a likely cost of $1.5 billion, the GAO says.

The capital budget for 2016 does have $166 million for planning toward construction of a new heavy icebreaker in addition to the 399’x83’6”x31’ Polar Star homeported in Seattle.

But there’s no sign yet of the estimated $831 million needed to build a new polar icebreaker to modern standards, and the Coast Guard is considering a refurbishment of the Star’s laid-up sister ship Polar Sea. 

The Coast Guard says they need more than $2 billion a year to keep up with replacing old ships. But for the last five years they have gotten no more than $1.5 billion. For fiscal year 2016 the Obama administration proposed allotting just $1 billion.

That prompted members of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation to hold a May 14 hearing, where the GAO findings were summarized by Michele Mackin, the agency’s director of acquisition and sourcing management.

The Coast Guard has improved its acquisition practices and increased competitiveness among its contractors, Mackin testified. However, “the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Coast Guard recognize, but have yet to address, the fact that the Coast Guard’s acquisition needs are not affordable based on past and expected future funding levels,” she said.

The OPC project is the biggest driver of those costs at $12.1 billion for 25 ships. The Coast Guard is expected to select one shipyard for detail design and ship construction later this year.

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.