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Coast Guard Faces Heavy Burden

The Coast Guard (search) is 214 years old this month, and as the service's relatively old fleet of ships and helicopters adjusts to the increased demands of the war on terror, some say its age is showing.

"We have yet to resolve how we are going to provide protection against the very kind of threat that we know Al Qaeda to be proficient in — the use of a small craft laden with explosives detonating beside the hull of a ship," said Kim Petersen, president of SeaSecure (search), the largest maritime security consulting company in the United States.

Petersen was referring to the Al Qaeda attack in 2000 that killed 17 sailors aboard the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen and the 2002 attack on the French oil tanker Limburg that resulted in one death.

The Coast Guard is not shy about acknowledging its challenges, but it says it is well on its way to fixing them through its "Deepwater" modernization program and its increased budgets since Sept. 11. 

But maritime security experts say the Coast Guard should be given even more resources, considering the threat America faces at sea and in its ports. They say that while the Coast Guard is performing well with limited resources, America will get the bang for its homeland security buck by investing more in the service.

To upgrade its aging fleet of ships and aircraft, the Coast Guard has launched the Integrated Deepwater System Program (search). The contract for Deepwater, the largest acquisition program in the Coast Guard's history, was awarded in June 2002. When completed, the Coast Guard will have three classes of new cutters, a new fixed-wing manned aircraft fleet and a combination of new and upgraded helicopters.

Nevertheless, some critics say it is not enough.

RAND Institute (search) study released earlier this year found that the $17 billion, 20-year Deepwater program, which was designed before Sept. 11, should be accelerated by five to 10 years, and funding should be increased by $8.5 billion to $16.2 billion. This funding would provide twice the number of cutters and one-third more aircraft.

"An acquisition program, which was really too modest before Sept. 11 is really not adequate after Sept. 11," said Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, a Heritage Foundation (search) homeland security expert.

Agreeing with Carafano, Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jeff Carter said the Deepwater program may need to be adjusted, because it was envisioned before Sept. 11 and does not take into account some of the challenges the service now faces.

"The increased operational tempo because of increased patrols on behalf of homeland security has meant that we're seeing more wear and tear on our assets," Carter said. "There is a need of looking at trying to increase the pace of replacing the assets."

The 2005 Coast Guard appropriations are part of the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, which has passed in the House. The Senate version has been marked up and is waiting to go to the floor. The Coast Guard's 2005 budget request is $5.173 billion, up from the $4.178 billion that was approved for 2004.

The Coast Guard is responsible for protecting the nation's nearly 100,000 miles of waterways and about 300 ports. It has many missions, including rescuing mariners, intercepting illegal immigrants, breaking ice and staying vigilant for external threats.

As a result, the service is forced to be flexible. In an emergency, it has a surge capacity, allowing it to take some ships off of icebreaking duty or mariner rescue to confront an urgent threat facing a port, for example.

Increasing the Coast Guard's budget is an extremely cost-effective way to boost homeland security because its duties cut "across virtually every aspect of maritime security," Carafano said, citing its role off the coast and in ports at home and abroad.

"Five dollars spent on the Coast Guard is probably going to buy much more than $50 spent on dogs and fences at a port."

Port security is a big problem, Petersen said, because the Coast Guard does not have enough resources for the waters close to ports.

"It doesn’t have either the people or the necessary physical resources to provide the in-water patrols that are so desperately needed," he said. "Local law enforcement in tandem with the ports are expected to fill that gap in the future, but we're talking about a very expensive enterprise, and a small port could easily see itself faced with a million dollars or more just meeting this one single requirement."

Petersen said the Coast Guard is underfunded in comparison to the other services and that Congress does not recognize its importance. He said Congress and the administration have failed "to provide adequate funds in the past. It seems to be an annual issue that the Coast Guard has to beg for money to perform its missions, despite the other services not being in the same situation."

Petersen acknowledged that the Coast Guard has received a significant funding boost, but it has also experienced "a massive increase in jurisdiction and operational requirements." He concluded that while the budget has increased, the mission has increased even more.

The Coast Guard's resources have been shifted around a great deal since Sept. 11, and it has shouldered significant additional burdens. But Carter said these additional burdens were accompanied by budget boosts of 51 percent since the terrorist attacks as well as a full-time military and civilian force that has grown by 3,000 personnel, with the latest authorized number being 45,000.

Carter rejected the idea that the Coast Guard was not getting the credit that it deserves or the financial resources that it needs.

"The Coast Guard post-9/11 is getting a lot of attention," he said. "A lot of people are realizing the value that they are getting. It’s a great time to be in the Coast Guard, with increased budgets, increased personnel and increased acknowledgment of our contribution."

Asked whether the new responsibilities are a challenge, Coast Guard Chief Paul Rhynard responded, "absolutely," but added, "It’s a challenge that we're not unfamiliar with. Since our inception we've always had a lot of responsibilities and only a certain amount of resources."