U.S. Coast Guard--small service, big job.
The United States Coast Guard (USCG), founded in 1790, is the smallest of the five military services but has broad authorities and responsibilities. Residing in the Department of Homeland Security, the USCG can enforce domestic laws, issue maritime regulations, save lives and protect the environment. The USCG consists of 42,000 military personnel, 7,000 civilians, 8,000 Reservists and an Auxiliary force of nearly 30,000 volunteers who perform this broad range of missions.
Many Americans think the USCG is just around our shores, guarding the coast. But there are USCG people and assets around the world, boarding commercial ships off the coast of Africa and in the Caribbean to search for illegal drugs or smuggled weapons, protecting oil terminals in the Arabian Gulf, inspecting U.S.-flagged ships in Singapore for compliance with safety standards, and opening ports in Antarctica to supply U.S. research stations.
Aging equipment, new challenges and budget pressures are making it difficult. The 25-50 year old ships of the Medium Endurance Cutter fleet are the workhorses on the high seas. These multi-mission ships do the bulk of fisheries enforcement, offshore Search and Rescue, counterdrug and illegal migrant interception, and maritime environmental protection. But they are showing their age and their replacement, the Offshore Patrol Cutter, is still on the drawing board. Whether Congress will actually fund this large procurement is still a question. The larger High Endurance Cutters are being replaced by very capable National Security Cutters (NSC). Three NSCs are operational, the fourth will be commissioned in October, and the keel is being laid for a fifth vessel. Coastal patrol boats are also being replaced with new Fast Response Cutters. Five have been delivered, eight are in production and five more are under contract. It is unknown whether Congress will continue funding these critical recapitalization projects. If our Nation wants the Coast Guard to continue providing current levels of service, recapitalization funds must be provided.
While the USCG struggles to replace aged ships, boats, and aircraft, operational challenges mount. Climate change is evident in the Arctic regions with ice packs receding to historic small size. This opens up new areas for "wild west" style offshore resource exploitation and marine traffic that puts the U.S. in direct competition with Russia and other nations ringing the Arctic. The USCG is responsible for environmental protection, Search and Rescue, and maritime safety there and is working to build new infrastructure in the Arctic region to meet these new challenges while struggling to maintain current assets under sequestration and continuing resolution budget reductions.
The men and women of the USCG have always taken pride in "doing more with less' but the people, boats, planes, ships, and aircraft are nearing a breaking point. The realities of reduced budgets will mean the USCG will start prioritizing missions and "doing less with less:' Services will be throttled back to match the resources provided by Congress.
by VICE ADMIRAL D. BRIAN PETERMAN, USCG (ret.)
VICE ADMIRAL D. BRIAN PETERMAN retired from the Coast Guard as Commander, Atlantic Area / Commander, Defense Force East.