The commandant of the US Coast Guard (USCG) strongly endorsed the White House fiscal 2011 budget request for his organization, saying in his State of the Coast Guard address that it would fund the right mix of resources for the service to fulfill its missions.
"As commandant, I supported this budget as it has provided me the flexibility, and the Coast Guard the flexibility, to continue our recapitalization needs," Adm. Thad Allen said in his Feb. 12 address in Washington, DC. "Collectively, the personnel reduction decommission unit and recapitalizing funding reflect hard choices, choices that best position the Coast Guard to optimize our performance and protect the nation within the funding provided and still replace aging cutters and aircraft."
Defending the budget as "the best way forward in a constrained funding level," Allen approved of the reduction of USCG personnel by 773 in the budget request as well as the removal of old cutters and aircraft from the USCG fleet.
The fiscal 2011 budget proposal would provide $1.4 billion to replace old boats and helicopters, Allen stressed, with new acquisitions such as national security cutters. The budget would enable the purchase of a fifth USCG national security cutter for $538 million.
The budget request also would provide $254 million for fast response cutters, $40 million for maritime patrol aircraft, and $13.9 million for housing improvements for USCG personnel.
The Coast Guard will award contracts for new procurements, such as the offshore patrol cutter, USCG spokesperson Laura Williams confirmed to HSToday.us. The Coast Guard has completed all major procurements under the Integrated Deepwater System with contractor Integrated Coast Guard Systems (ICGS). It will not renew the ICGS Deepwater contract when it expires in January 2011.
But to fund those improvements, the Coast Guard would receive no money for the National Automated Identification System (NAIS), a tracking system for vessels weighing 300 gross tons or more or measuring 65 feet or more in length.
"We think this is a critical piece of what we call maritime domain awareness. It is competing with other items in our recapitalization agenda right now. And as I said, our aging cuttersare our number one responsibility," Allen remarked. "But as we move forward, we’re going to have to revisit what we think about maritime security in this country as it relates to not only the national AIS system, but integrated operation centers and how we want to conduct operations at the port level."
In addition, the proposed USCG budget would eliminate five Maritime Safety and Security Teams (MSSTs) based in New York City; San Francisco; New Orleans; Anchorage, Alaska; and Kings Bay, Ga. The MSSTs maintain at least 75 USCG personnel to patrol harbors and waterways.
Allen did not address the cuts to MSSTs but it has drawn congressional ire in recent weeks, with Democrats and Republicans deriding the elimination of the New York team in particular as a bad idea.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) weighed in most recently Feb. 8, sending a letter of protest to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about the decision to cut the New York team.
"This plan is simply penny wise and pound foolish," Schumer said in a statement. "Since the mission of these teams is to provide security during major events and when there is a specific threat, taking the teams away from New York City would leave us more vulnerable during the most sensitive times.
"While the Obama administration is right to seek to consolidate resources where it is warranted, taking the budget ax to New York City when it comes to terror just doesn’t make sense. I urge them to scrap this plan to ensure New York City’s harbor and waterways stay safe and secure," Schumer added.
The MSSTs not only contribute to port security but they respond to specific threats in the area–including to monuments likethe Statue of Liberty–and they board suspect vessels and assist with natural disasters when appropriate, Schumer noted.
The concerns are certain to resurface when Congress holds hearings on the fiscal 2011 budget. Those hearings, delayed from last week due to significant snowstorms in Washington, DC, likely will convene beginning next week.
Allen underscored the urgent need to make room in the budget to upgrade USCG assets, noting valuable time was lost in the Coast Guard’s relief mission in Haiti due to repairs to its boats.
"As I have noted in the past, the Coast Guard operates one of the oldest fleets in the world. No amount of maintenance can outpace the ravages of age. Here’s what happened behind the scenes," Allen declared.
Ten of 12 USCG cutters deployed to assist Haitians suffered mechanical problems that affected their ability to help, Allen reported. Two of them returned to port for emergency repairs while another went into emergency dry dock.
The Coast Guard took air resources away from evacuation operations in Haiti to deliver repair parts to its fleet.
A forward logistics office set up at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to assist with operations in Haiti coordinated those repairs, Allen said.
The Feb. 12 address was Allen’s last State of the Coast Guard Address. Vice Adm. Robert Papp is scheduled to relieve Allen as commandant on May 25, when Allen’s four-year tenure as USCG chief ends.