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Facing New Dangers, Coast Guard Does More With Less

By Nat Helms   |   Thursday, 05 Mar 2009 10:07 PM

Seven years into the United States Coast Guard’s $24 billion modernization program the nation’s smallest armed force is doing more with less than at just about any time in its 219-year history, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen said this week.

"The good news is there's never been a greater demand for our services," Allen said during his State of the Coast Guard speech at the National Press Center in Washington. "The bad news is there's never been a greater demand for our services.”

"The fact that demand for Coast Guard services exceeds our capacity has always been the case," Allen said. "But as the nation faces fiscal uncertainty, we'll have to make difficult financial choices and manage resources to buy down risk in the most critical areas."

On the plus side the Coast Guard has just about worked out the bugs in its first National Security Cutter. The 418-foot USCGC Bertholf is billed as a state-of-the art answer to the Coast Guard’s need for modern ships. It is the first big cutter commissioned in 35 years.

No sooner had the Bertholf slid down the ways than serious structural problems emerged that slowed its entry into the Coast Guard’s aging fleet. It also raised the question when the other seven other NSC cutters just like it will enter service, the Coast Guard told Newsmax last December.

Last September Allen authorized buying the first of 34 off-the shelf 153-foot patrol boats designed by Damen, a Dutch shipbuilding company. Called the Sentinal class, the new ships will be built to USCG specifications by Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, LA, Blore said.

They will eventually replace 49 aging 110-foot Island Class patrol craft doing yeoman service in the US, Caribean, and the Middle East, including six guarding Iraq’s offshore oil wells.

"This is not the same Coast Guard that existed even one year ago," Allen added.

Allen said that trying to modernize the service’s decades old fleet, fight the Global War on Terror, and assume the myriad of others tasks it has been assigned since being taken from the Department of Transportation in March 2003 and put under the control of the Secretary of Homeland Security is particularly challenging.

The Coast Guard is the only armed service that doesn’t report to the Secretary of Defense. It reports to the President and Secretary of Homeland Security unless war is declared and it is put under the command of the US Navy. That has not happened since World War II.

“Your Coast Guard is employing an astoundingly diverse set of capabilities and competencies,” Allen said, noting the service was a "capital-intensive organization" with a fleet that has "well documented" problems.

Allen was particularly frustrated by the condition of the nation’s polar ice breaking fleet, he said. Currently the United States only possesses “three ice capable ships” designed to operate in polar waters and one of them is broken. As a result many US polar missions, including “Operation Deep Freeze” are contracted to foreign ship operators.

Only the nine-year old USCG Healy, primarily a scientific research vessel, and the 32-year old USCGC Polar Sea are currently in operation. Two weeks ago the Coast Guard awarded a $29 million contract to Seattle, Washington's Todd Shipyards for the retrofit of the icebreaker Polar Star, built at Seattle's Lockheed Shipbuilding Corp. yard in 1976.

The Coast Guard's diverse missions around the world and in the United States require "adroit planning, savvy resource allocation and risk-informed decision-making," Allen said.

"We are experts at managing an aging fleet to meet mission requirements, but time is a merciless thief, and it is stealing readiness with each passing year," he added.

The Coast Guard was recently allocated about $100 million in stimulus funds to repair its fleet and improve some facilities, Allen said

Meanwhile the Coast Guard remains focused on current operations and mission execution in support of homeland security, Allen said, noting that in the past year the Coast Guard has responded to piracy in the Gulf of Aden, hurricane relief in the US, and law enforcement missions around the world.

Recently a specially trained 16-man Coast Guard boarding team serving aboard US Navy ship captured 16 pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden and turned them over to Kenyan authorities for criminal prosecution.

"We are a small service, but we have a large impact on the daily lives of our citizens and the citizens of the world," Allen said.

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