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Shaping the Coasties’s Strategic Decline: One Platform Cut at a Time

Posted by Robbin Laird on

When Congress considers funding a ship or a plane or a helicopter, the focus is often narrow: what does it cost this year? The Hill often ignores the impact of moving money for critical platforms to future budgets.

Also, the strategic and tactical costs to the country of delaying a platform acquisition costs the country are rarely considered. The economic consequences of not funding a platform are not even in the calculus.

Presumably, no congressman would get up and give a speech celebrating the transformation of the Coast Guard into a harbor patrol force, or celebrate ceding billions of dollars of economic assets to China, Russia or allowing anyone to fish in the Bering Straits.

But this is just what Congress is about to do.

We know that the Obama administration is decommissioning two older cutters from the Pacific, which in turn endangers the ability of the Coast Guard to protect our fisheries and other resources, which have a direct economic impact. One could easily argue that the loss of US revenue from commercial shipping each year caused the cutters’ absence is equal to the cost of a cutter! Great economic logic there, Congress and Administration!

Our sources in Congress tell us that the 2012 funding for the sixth National Security Cutter is up in the air. The Coast Guard has worked hard with the shipbuilder to get costs under control this has now been accomplished. NSC 4 has been built to a fixed price contract and delivered with virtually no faults. So it appears the Coast Guard’s reward for putting a crucial asset on a ship-shape course is to delay funding so that all that hard work is lost.

If money for the sixth cutter is moved into the next budget, the procurement delay will result in at least a $30 million dollar increase. This will likely render the program unaffordable in the eyes of the Department of Homeland Security and Capitol Hill. OMB has been a constant critic of Coast Guard funding for new cutters, whether NSCs or .

This game needs to be called; it is a sort of funding Ponzi scheme, whereby policy makers can criticize the service that needs the platform now, and then harvest the anger of taxpayers in a few years for inevitable price hikes.

The Coast Guard has asked for eight NSCs and a fleet of new Offshore Patrol Cutters to replace the tired ships sailing today. The current fleet is so worn out that the administration is retiring two cutters this year alone. Retirement without replacement effectively constitutes strategic withdrawal and the yielding of sovereignty in protecting economic and environmental equities, as well as compromising safety and security.

The Coast Guard needs its 2012 funding and relief from the OMB Circular A-11 requirement to provide full funding for the ship in the year it is contracted.

This is an absurd policy for shipbuilding because some of the funding expires before post production costs are even realized! The Navy – a more favored service – already gets relief through authorization and appropriations language per project.

Why not the Coast Guard?

Whilst the Administration is reducing the numbers of Coast Guard cutters in the Pacific and arguing against the full number of replacement cutters and the building of a new Offshore Patrol Cutter, the need for an expanded USCG capability is going up. This is yet another disconnect between words and deeds.

Our economy depends on trade, which is supported by what can be viewed as a giant set of conveyor belts of shipping and port facilities around the world with lots of on and off ramps. Any massive disruption of that system, either on the high seas or the loss of a major port, could cause the system to collapse with devastating effects on the world’s economy.

Although there was little reporting about it, one of the major successes in the Katrina aftermath was how quickly the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers reopened the Mississippi and our other vital maritime highways. There was a report recently that closing the Mississippi has a $400 million per day economic impact.

The areas the Coast Guard must cover are enormous. It must maintain an effective presence throughout our nations’ maritime territories, which include about 3.4 million square miles of water; this is just slightly less than our total land mass.

No other organization has the assets, skills and authorities to do this vital work. And the scope of operations, notably in the Pacific is immense and simply can not be done without new cutters.

Here are some examples:

  • From Alameda, CA to the Bering Sea Fisheries areas is about 2800 nautical miles; this equates to 7-8 days of steaming for a cutter operating at an economical speed.
  • The Northern Pacific Fisheries areas are 4200 nautical miles (almost two weeks of steaming) from San Diego. This is the area where high seas drift nets, “walls of death”, are a real threat absent effective on scene enforcement.

There are many vital jobs to be done in our Maritime Territories and international waters if we are to be safe and secure with a protected environment.

We must have an effective presence on the water to save lives, interdict illegal migrants, protect fisheries, secure our maritime borders, provide security for offshore energy resources and conduct and manage major incidents such as Haiti, Katrina and the Gulf Oil Spill. These events just happen. The country doesn’t have time to build ships and helicopters, to mobilize and train responders.

The men and women of the Coast Guard are ready to respond but it is difficult to show courage when you have nothing to fly or sail in — unless we expect these folks to walk on water.

Or perhaps Congress can become more honest and, rather than breaking bottles on new ships, just announce that the US strategic withdrawal from the Pacific has begun.

Robbin Laird is an international defense consultant, owner of the Second Line of Defense website, and a former National Security Council staffer. Laird is a member of Breaking Defense’s Board of Contributors. Coast Guard Rear Adm. (ret.) Ed Gilbert, now a consultant in Virginia, was the service’s comptroller and commander of the Eleventh Coast Guard District.

What do you think?