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Coast Guard resolute as cuts in force loom

Speaking by webcast in his annual address to “all hands,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp reassured his 42,000 men and women that there is reason for “optimism and faith,” even as the agency navigates “uncertain and stormy seas” driven by the winds of federal deficit reduction and changing strategic priorities.Papp, in his Feb. 23 State of the Coast Guard Address, warned that the service will cut its force by 1,000 in fiscal 2013 while “dynamic and evolving threats are increasing in the global maritime domain: illicit drug and human trafficking, piracy, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, illegal fishing, environmental crimes and belligerent nation-states.”

He says he will not “allow our service to become a hollow operational force,” but acknowledges that a 4 percent 2013 budget reduction would force him to cut back on some activities. The president’s proposed Coast Guard budget of $9.96 billion cuts $272 million, or 19 percent, from 2012 levels for the acquisition of boats and aircraft that Papp had hoped would continue the modernization of his aging fleets. Many of the cutters are 40 years old, relics of the last great modernization in the 1970s.
The budget provides $658 million for a sixth 418-foot National Security Cutter for offshore patrols. The Coast Guard had been counting on eight.
In March 7 testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee, Papp said the loss of the two NSCs could force the Coast Guard to curtail some of its anti-drug-smuggling operations in the Pacific and Caribbean and back off enforcement patrols against illegal high-seas drift-net fishing.
There was no suggestion that the cuts would imperil search and rescue, but subcommittee chairman U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., says the pared-back budget would “shutter recruiting stations, close seasonal air facilities [in the Great Lakes], take recently upgraded helicopters out of service and exacerbate the growing patrol boat mission hour gap by retiring vessels before their replacements arrive.”
Instead of delivering his address from Washington, D.C., as the commandant traditionally does, Papp spoke this year from Base Alameda, Calif., with the Bertholf, the Coast Guard’s first NSC, as a backdrop.
The venue was significant for two reasons. First, it stressed the importance that Papp attaches to the Coast Guard’s getting its full complement of NSCs. In an era when drug, illegal immigrant and terrorist interdiction are national priorities, patrolling the offshore maritime domain with the NSCs is a central part of today’s Coast Guard mission.
“We seek to prevent dangerous or illicit maritime actions as far from our shores as possible while providing safe navigation for mariners in commerce,” he said in his address.
Second, the location highlighted the growing importance of the Pacific Rim to what the Coast Guard sees as its future. Papp pointed north to the Bering Sea — “one of the richest fishing grounds in the world” — and to the Arctic, where global warming is turning the ice cap into a “new ocean” that, during the summer, “promises shorter shipping routes, petroleum discoveries and tourism.”
He looked south to the waters off Mexico and Central and South America, the so-called Eastern Pacific Transit Zone for drug smuggling. Farther west, he sees yet more rich fishing grounds off Hawaii and the U.S. territorial islands and burgeoning maritime commerce between the United States and Asia.
“For trade to flow, shipping lanes must remain open, ports must be safe and cargo secure,” he says. “The president recently stated that America will enhance its presence in the Pacific.”
In addition to funding another NSC, the budget provides for two more 154-foot Fast Response Cutters to replace aging 110-foot cutters (18 FRCs are under contract); continues work on the design of an offshore patrol cutter (probably more than 300 feet) with boat ramps, a flight deck and hangar space for helicopters to replace its Medium Endurance Cutters; and initiates the survey and design of a new polar icebreaker and 75-foot coastal buoy tender. The service has brought 82 medium response boats on line to replace its 41-foot utility boats and will receive 30 more in 2012.
Papp says that even as the service trims its spending, the decisions made now to add and retire assets can be beneficial, if done right.
“These decisions will provide the Coast Guard with the capabilities and force structure it needs for the next 40 years,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.