NATIONAL HARBOR, MD: The Coast Guard is shrinking and may have to cut back on traditional missions like fisheries protection and drug interdiction to free up resources for new issues like cybersecurity and the thawing of the Arctic, warned the service’s commandant, Admiral Robert J. Papp, this morning at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space convention.
“I’m really grateful to the Administration and the Congress that at least we are moving along,” Adm. Papp said, “but the 42 major cutters that we have today are scheduled to be replaced by 33 major cutters in the future.” The Coast Guard’s most visible missions close to shore have been relatively well funded, with investments in shore stations, small patrol craft, and the new Sentinel-class light cutter, but “that’s playing defense” in our own coastal waters, warned Papp, when what national security most requires is “a sovereign presence on the high seas.” The new deep-sea National Security Cutters, three of which are now in service after much delay, are more advanced, more capable, and simply less run-down than the Coast Guard’s current fleet of 40-year-old vessels, which lose much of their mission time to maintenance. But nevertheless fewer ships means the service can be in fewer places — even as demands increase.
“We’re picking up extra mission space with the Arctic,” where increasing energy exploration and decreasing ice cover are combining to increase commercial activity, Papp said. “We’re sending one of the National Security Cutters up there…[but] that’s going to come at the expense of [other missions]. There are going to be drugs that are getting through or fisheries that are unprotected.”
The Navy and the Coast Guard together seize about a hundred tons of cocaine in the Latin American “transit zones” each year, Papp noted — more than twice what domestic law enforcement finds after it gets ashore — but they could seize even more if they had assets to follow up on all their intelligence. Instead, said Papp, both the Navy and the Coast Guard will have to decrease their commitment to drug interdiction.
The Coast Guard is making some hard choices ashore, as well. As cyber threats increase, the Coasties currently provide liaison officers to the military’s Cyber Command and are standing up what Papp calls a “nascent Coast Guard cyber command.” Cyber, said Papp,”is one area within the Coast Guard where we do need to devote some more resources,” even at expense of other areas.
Overall, the current budget cuts the Coast Guard by a thousand uniformed personnel — a bit over 2%. “We’ve got only 42,000 uniformed people within the Coast Guard,” said Papp. “1,000 people is going to be painful for us.” The service has added 6,000 personnel since 9/11, he said, but “we are only now back to where we were in the early nineties,” before homeland security was a high-profile mission.
So while the Coasties pride themselves on taking on any job the nation needs — the service motto, “Semper Paratus,” means “ever prepared” — Papp said it will have to shed some missions to stay afloat with limited and shrinking resources: “We have to have the courage to be able to say no sometimes.”