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Search and Rescue: Why the Coast Guard Needs Help

Posted by Robbin Laird on

The Coast Guard plays important roles combating piracy and keeping America’s shores safe, but unless the President is an alchemist and can turn words into money, the service soon won’t be able to do what Congress says it must do.

There is no military area where gap between words and deeds yawns wider than in the Coast Guard. Recently, President Obama noted “we know that the complex missions asked of our Coast Guard have never been more important. Around the world, we need you to partner with other nations to secure their ports, protect the vital shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf, combat piracy off the Horn of Africa, and help train foreign partners from the Americas to Africa to Asia. Here at home, we need you to stop those smugglers, and protect our oceans, and prevent terrorists from slipping deadly weapons into our ports.”

He pledged the nation would “do everything in our power to help you succeed. That’s why we’re investing in the new ships and national security cutters and aircraft that you need to get the job done. It’s why we’re adding new inspectors and investigators and support personnel to keep pace with today’s missions.”

But the Obama Administration is retiring ships and other key assets more quickly than it is building new ones. The Obama Administration is making it difficult for the Coast Guard to build new National Security Cutters and it is resisting building the Offshore Patrol Cutters which are to compliment the NSCs. And the Obama Administration is not supporting fully funding the new maritime patrol aircraft.

The Obama Administration is not providing the money or the policy to deal with the core Arctic challenges facing the nation, where the five claimants to significant resources are increasingly meeting toe to toe. The administration has talked of working collectively on Arctic search and rescue but without building new icebreakers it is difficult to understand how the Administration will do this. There are no shore assets to do Search and Rescue; you need the icebreaker as the command and implementation asset.

And the task of providing security for offshore drilling is difficult to meet without new regulators, new equipment and new capabilities to operate offshore. A core provider of equipment to the Coast Guard – Eurocopter — is building a whole new class of copters to deal with offshore challenges, but it would be difficult to find the program put in place to acquire these new assets.

At the heart of the difficulties facing the Obama Administration’s approach is where the Coast Guard sits. Although both a military and civilian service, it is found in a civilian agency, the so-called Department of Homeland Security. The approach of the current Secretary of DHS is more upon security at home than projection outward to provide for homeland security. The focus is more upon shaping capabilities inside the U.S. to deal with threats than engagements outside the U.S. to deter threats.

As a result, the Coast Guard’s ability to fulfill its obligations under Title X – its military obligations – have suffered. The DHS and Office of Management and Budget of the Obama Administration have resisted supporting the National Security Cutter in part because it is not simply an inland waterway or harbor asset. It is designed to operate in international waterways to engage threats outside of the 200-mile limits.

For the Obama administration’s homeland security team, such capabilities are expensive and unnecessary. As one DHS official told me: “This is the US Navy’s job.” To say the least, this is an interesting interpretation of the Coast Guard’s Title X obligations.

The President mentioned that he recently met a Coast Guard officer stationed in Afghanistan. One is tempted to ask the president if he understood why the Coast Guard operates abroad and how much support DHS is providing for its foreign missions.

The other difficulty is not simply lack of support or real understanding for the USCG global engagement but the lack of understanding in the Obama Administration and Congress about the central importance of new equipment to play the game.

The “bad guys” can buy and build stealthy airplanes, fast boats, submarines and have access to state of the art communications equipment. The Coast Guard continues to operate equipment that was operated when “I love Lucy” dominated the airways. This is a joke. Why we ask 21st century professionals to operate second-class equipment is beyond me. Why doesn’t the President fly around in 1950s aircraft with communications equipment from the same era and see how he likes it!

Where are the congressional hearings on why the Obama administration and Congress can not deliver support a 21st-century Coast Guard?

Examples abound of the ways new equipment can improve the Coast Guard’s ability to protect the homeland, secure our coastal waters and save lives.

A stunning example was the impact of the new C-130J mission systems on saving a life in early January 2010,a dramatic rescue effected by the USCG was done in cooperation with the US Navy to save a man’s life at sea. This rescue involved key C4ISR assets on the new USCG MC-130Js

The impact of modernization on operations could not be clearer than in this case of rescuing a sailor at sea. Not only did the new mission systems and C4ISR assets play a central role in allowing the USCG professionals to save this man’s life, it would have been unlikely that either the effort or the joint team communication involved in the effort would have been possible.

Here the redundancy of the new mission systems allowed the crew to operate in extremely challenging conditions. The systems allowed them to locate the man miles before they would have been able to with the old systems; time was of the essence and the new systems gave them that time. And when the MC130J became mission critical with regard to fuel, they were able to hand off through the C4ISR systems, the data that they had generated to the replacement MC130J. This allowed for continuity at a crucial moment.

But it’s not just its ships, planes and helicopters that need replacing. Coast Guard shore facilities are crumbling before our eyes. For example, the Elizabeth City Coast Guard Station in North Carolina is the base from which much of the East Coast operations for the Air Arm are supported and operated. Yet the floor is crumbling in the main warehouse where parts for all Coast Guard air assets are stored at what its recently retired commander Capt. FIRST NAME Bennett calls this this “vintage World War II base.”.

A typical example of the problem on the base is its aircraft maintenance facility.

“This is the hub where it all happens, all the spare parts, all major maintenance comes through here — Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

And currently our warehouse, which has a lot of these spare parts, is in need of great repair; we have a crumbling floor right now, which we’re buttressing up. This part of the country, we’re close to the Dismal Swamp, we have a lot of underground water.

Actually, the warehouse is on top of kind of an underground river.

So the floor is sagging, so we’re looking forward to getting a new warehouse so we can adequately house all of the spare parts and get a state-of-the-art warehousing.

Because if we have a failure here within Elizabeth City for the aircraft maintenance, it’ll affect the whole fleet throughout the Coastguard. We are a single point of failure.

So that’s a huge infrastructure issue that we’re looking forward to working through.
But right now, we kind of a bridging strategy with a temporary fix on the floor, if you will.”

While we bailed out GM and other large companies, we have provided piteously little to modernize the Coast Guard, or to recognize its global mission. This is a game with consequences.

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