BALTIMORE – The Coast Guard just rolled out the most sophisticated ship it’s ever commissioned, packed with new technology to help in the hunt for drug smugglers and terrorists.
The cutter Bertholf — 418 feet from stem to stern — is set to patrol the Pacific from California to Ecuador — a patch of ocean as large as the United States.
“The bubble that’s around this ship that we can see and hear and respond to is much larger than any cutter we've ever built,” said Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, referring to the range of the guns, fast boats, and helicopter aboard the Bertholf.
The helicopter has guns and sniper rifles mounted on its sides and infrared equipment under its belly. The infrared allows pilots to scope out boats from miles away.
“We can count how many people are on board, we can determine how many engines based on the heat signatures," said Lt. Steve McCullough. "If we're lucky, we can determine if there's contraband on board prior to even getting over the vessel.”
That should be a boon for the Coast Guard, as speedy craft have sometimes evaded its grasp.
“For many years we [were chasing] these fast boats that were much faster than our cutters that were basically running away from us,” Allen said. “But they can’t run away from a helicopter that's armed.
"In fact, it's actually caused the smugglers to change their behavior ... so we think its been very effective.”
Effective, but certainly not cheap. The Bertholf faced delays and cost overruns before it came in at a price tag of $640 million.
The first of eight similar cutters to be rolled out over the next several years, its acquisition is part of the Coast Guard’s Deepwater program, a plan to modernize an aging fleet and keep up with its expanded Homeland Security role.
“The Coast Guard is not where I want it to be,” said Congressman Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “Their mission has grown substantially since 9/11 but their resources and personnel have not, and that's not the Coast Guard's fault. That’s the Congress's fault and we’ve got to do better by the Coast Guard.”
Cummings, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, said Congress recently "increased the Coast Guard’s numbers by about 1,500 with this last budget cycle. So we feel really good about that but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Yet even as the Coast Guard expands its personnel, a recent report by Congress’ watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, noted that the Deepwater program “has experienced serious performance and management problems.”
The report cites a $100 million contract the Coast Guard awarded in 2002 to Integrated Coast Guard Systems, a joint venture put together by Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.
The contract work was meant to modernize and lengthen eight patrol boats, but after the work was done, the vessels began to show severe structural damage and had to be pulled out of service. Six years later, they remain as scrap in Baltimore’s Coast Guard Yard.
“When it appeared that the hulls weren’t performing, one of the first decisions I made as a commandant, I said, ‘Take the boats out of commission,’” Allen said.
The Department of Justice is now investigating what went wrong and whether the government can get some of its money back.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says the Coast Guard has made huge improvements since September 11, but acknowledges there are still improvements needed in the nation’s maritime security.
“We want to complete our small boat strategy,” Chertoff said. “That means get ourselves in a position to make sure nobody sneaks in in a small vessel or between the ports of entry or brings something in or attacks the ports. Now we've got that well underway, but we've got some more to do.”
On a recent trip through Baltimore Harbor, the crew of the Bertholf showed off its features and the high-tech helicopter to Chertoff and reporters.
Chief Gunner's Mate Larry Muldowney manned the massive 57-millimeter cannon on the bow, which he said can strike targets up to seven miles away.
“If we can get 40 of those off in 11 seconds, we do quite a bit of damage,” he said, popping open the back of the gun mount to show the machinery inside.
Before leaving Baltimore, the Bertholf docked in the tourist-packed area of Fell’s Point and gave tours of the ship to the public. Because the cutter will be on patrol for months at a time, it may have been the only chance for most civilians to see it at work.
That, says Commandant Allen, is the point.
“With its range of 12,000 miles we don’t have to wait until the ship gets into our harbor, we can deal with the dangers offshore.”