Uncertainty over budget talks leaves Coast Guard leadership to hedge their bets on future fleet mix, total numbers of hulls and operational capabilities.
On Wednesday, members of the media were invited to join Coast Guard senior leadership for a discussion about recent acquisition efforts and the status of recapitalizing the service’s aging fleet. The briefing, which took place at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, revealed little in terms of new developments but at the same time, underscored the increasing concerns amongst Coast Guard senior leaders that budget woes may soon force a scaling back of one or more aspects of their ambitious, multi-billion dollar recapitalization plans.
The briefing coincided conspicuously with ongoing U.S. Congress deficit reduction talks now underway in the nation’s Capitol. Rear Adm. John Korn, assistant commandant for acquisition and Rear Adm. Vincent Atkins, assistant commandant for capability talked about the performance of the newest Coast Guard Cutters and other aspects of the fabrication of National Security Cutters.
RADM Atkins began the press briefing by making the case that the Coast Guard’s recapitalization plan in its entirety was necessary and then explained why. Atkins told gathered media and those dialed in remotely that the Coast Guard’s operating costs were up dramatically while at the same time, sea presence was shrinking. He pointed to a fleet mix that, on average, was approaching 40 years in service and characterized it as “one of the world’s oldest coast guard fleets, but also one of its busiest.”
Atkins also outlined positive aspects of the recapitalization plan; notably the on-time, on-budget delivery of at least one hull. And, conceding some “first in class” delays for some cutters, he also pointed to the Coast Guard’s Acquisition Directorate, which has been up and running for five years and the “exponential increase” in acquisition specialists at DHS during that time frame. The Directorate stood up in the choppy wake of, and in response to the well-publicized Deepwater problems which came about largely as a function of the Coast Guard’s ill-advised decision, at the inception of the Deepwater program, to hand over the lead systems integrator role to contractors. The Coast Guard now insists that they are fully in charge of a much improved design and build program.
Coast Guard leaders also declined to discuss ongoing budget legislation or the possibility that funding for their programs could be slashed. In March, Coast Guard Commandant ADM Robert Papp, referring to the Coast Guard's growing mission sets, told Maritime Professional readers, “If the country wants us to do these things, it’s my responsibility to go to Congress and say, ‘we don’t have the resources to do that.’ Give me the resources and I’ll do the job. Or, give it to some other agency.” On Wednesday, Atkins told reporters, “Papp wants the hulls to support missions.” He conceded that this might involve reducing operational capabilities of these new hulls if the funding wasn’t there.
An ongoing “trade-off analysis” for Deepwater assets is also reportedly underway at Coast Guard headquarters. And, according to the Coast Guard, what’s essential, what isn’t and the future “fleet mix” is all still under review. All of that will be predicated on the outcome of the budget talks in Washington. Wednesday’s meeting suggested that the Coast Guard was clearly bracing for budget cuts, but the gathered flag staff would not elaborate further.
Hoping for as many as 8 National Security Cutters and 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters, the availability of funding may eventually force DHS to sacrifice requirements by changing the fleet mix, sacrificing operational capabilities, or both. In response to persistent questioning from reporters, Coast guard personnel declined to be more specific on Wednesday.