The U.S. Coast Guard’s shrinking budget for equipment modernization is raising alarm bells on Capitol Hill.
At a June 26 hearing of the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, key lawmakers expressed concern that the Coast Guard is not getting enough funding to replace its decades-old ships and other aging systems at an adequate pace. The Coast Guard intends to spend $5.1 billion on acquisition over the next five years, a 33 percent cut from its previous five-year plan.
“It is simply irresponsible to continue to send our servicemen and women out on failing legacy assets commissioned over 50 years ago and expect them to succeed in their missions,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), the panel’s chairman.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, gave a similar assessment, saying, “If we continue on the same course, we will accomplish little but to hollow out the capabilities of our guardians of the sea.”
Ronald O’Rourke, a longtime naval analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, testified that the budget cut “is one of the largest percentage reductions in funding that I have seen a five-year acquisition account experience from one year to the next in many years.” He added that “there has been no change in the Coast Guard’s strategic environment since last year that would suggest a significant reduction in estimated future missions for the Coast Guard.”
One new factor in the Coast Guard’s favor, however, is the possible transfer of “excess” C-27J transport aircraft from the Air Force to the Coast Guard, O’Rourke said. If obtained in sufficient numbers to make economic sense, the C-27Js could be used as medium-range surveillance aircraft and would allow the Coast Guard to stop buying more HC-144A maritime patrol aircraft, he explained. The Coast Guard estimates the transfer could save it up to $750 million.
Vice Commandant John Currier testified that “the Coast Guard has made great strides in our efforts to recapitalize the Coast Guard fleet and support systems over the past year.” Recent accomplishments include starting construction of the fifth National Security Cutter, accepting delivery of the sixth Fast Response Cutter and 15th HC-144A and awarding a contract for three more HC-130J long-range surveillance aircraft. The Coast Guard also conducted a two-week demonstration of the ScanEagle unmanned aerial system aboard cutter Bertholf as part of an effort to explore potential cutter- and land-based unmanned aircraft.
“The service continues to accept delivery of new cutters, aviation assets, small boats and [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR)] capabilities, bolstering our mission readiness and performance,” Currier said.
But Currier acknowledged that the Coast Guard faces “tough choices” due to “fiscal duress” and said the Coast Guard, along with the Department of Homeland Security and the Obama Administration, has begun an “acquisition portfolio review” to reassess its “asset mix” and determine whether its needs to scale back its missions. A completion date for the review has not yet been determined, he said.