The Coast Guard is taking steps toward addressing its significant backlog of projects intended to fix crumbling infrastructure while planning for improvements and recapitalization of critical systems that will give service members technology “that is mobile, that is reliable, and that is integrated,” the leader of mission support told Congress.
“Our service is in the midst of the most significant surface and air asset recapitalization since World War II,” Deputy Commandant for Mission Support Vice Adm. Paul Thomas told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation at a Tuesday hearing. “The ships and aircraft we are building today will guard our nation’s shores for generations to come. But as our commandant says, every Coast Guard mission begins and ends at a shore facility, and we must do better at building the infrastructure necessary to support this fleet of the future.”
Geographically dispersed facilities with diverse missions pose “a unique maintenance challenge, and many are aging at a rate that stresses our ability to maintain or recapitalize them.”
“We’re working to execute the nearly $1.2 billion in supplemental appropriations that Congress provided in the wake of the 2017 and ’18 hurricane seasons and the nearly $2 billion major shore infrastructure appropriations that have been made since 2018,” he said. “Because critical infrastructure to support our modern fleet extends beyond traditional brick-and-mortar facilities in 2020, the service embarked upon a technology revolution… From mobility applications underway to cutter connectivity, the strategic investments we are making now and must continue to make in the future across our IT systems ensure that we remain ready, resilient, and responsive.”
Improvement and construction projects for Coast Guard-owned housing have been resourced through access to the Coast Guard Housing Fund, Thomas said, and “from Jonesport, Maine, to Kodiak, Alaska, we are constructing family housing units that are modern and adequately sized and serve our members and their families very well.”
Government Accountability Office Acting Director Heather MacLeod noted that, with more than 20,000 facilities at more than 2,700 locations, more than half of the Coast Guard’s shore infrastructure “is beyond its service life, resulting in costly recapitalization, construction, and maintenance project backlogs” totaling more than $2.6 billion as of 2019.
“Also, it’s likely that the estimated costs to address the backlog are understated,” she added. “This is particularly concerning not only because of the amount of time needed to address the backlog but because of other potential impacts. For example, we have identified that deferring maintenance can lead to higher costs in the long run while also risking — posing risks to safety, security, readiness, staffing resources, and mission execution.”
Thomas said the USCG is “taking steps right now, largely based on the GAO recommendations,” to improve modernization efforts and infrastructure challenges. MacLeod said the Coast Guard has taken steps toward addressing GAO recommendations “in some cases,” including “prioritizing critical infrastructure and incorporating resilience planning.”
Further improving management of infrastructure would include “predicting the outcome of investments and analyzing tradeoffs to achieve cost savings” and prioritizing investments “across its shore infrastructure portfolio, more efficiently managing resources by disposing of unneeded assets,” she added.
“Given the Coast Guard’s competing acquisition, operational, and maintenance needs, and project backlog, this could help to mitigate some of its resource challenges,” she said. “Reporting shore infrastructure information more completely and accurately in congressionally required plans and budget requests. This additional detail could help the Congress prioritize funding to address the Coast Guard shore infrastructure backlog.”
GAO has done “preliminary work reviewing a range of Coast Guard IT infrastructure and cybersecurity issues” to help ensure that investments in data infrastructure address the service’s mission and user needs, MacLeod told lawmakers.
“This work indicates there may be gaps in how the Coast Guard has applied policies and leading practices to management of its IT infrastructure and the associated workforce,” she said, noting later that “it’s hard to know what the Coast Guard’s greatest needs and priorities are without more information on how it’s assessing individual projects.”
Asked by Chairman Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) about “the impact that decrepit, deficient infrastructure has on mission capability and morale,” Thomas replied that “there are absolutely real impacts” but the Coast Guard is “getting after it.”
“If you go to Kodiak, Alaska, or you go to Charleston, South Carolina, the piers there, you know, need to be recapitalized,” Thomas said. “And they require us to operate differently. In Kodiak, if the winds exceed about 40 knots, we have to move the ships. In Pensacola, where we have two piers that have collapsed, our ships sometimes need to get underway when they’re not scheduled to be underway to free up the piers that we’re borrowing from the Navy because they need it for one of their ships.”
“The president signed the infrastructure bill, including the $429 million for the Coast Guard,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.). “What’s the Coast Guard’s plans to invest those dollars specifically into the subject matter we have today, the shoreside infrastructure?”
Thomas said the funds “will certainly help us get after this infrastructure backlog,” including “about $130 million or so that are going to go to housing improvements and some improvements at our training centers.”
“There’s about $158 million or so that’s been — we’re looking at major shore infrastructure that supports our cutters, $120 million that’s directed toward improvements or construction of a new child development center,” he added. “So, that money is definitely being put to good use. I don’t know precisely where all those projects are yet, sir, but we can certainly, as we develop those plans, keep you well informed.”
Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) asked about the USCG’s previously announced plans to replace the Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement (MISLE) database system and whether the service will “look for an already-developed platform at other federal agencies or other armed forces to save time and development costs.”
Thomas acknowledged that the Coast Guard has “struggled with IT acquisitions, and the reason for that is that we’ve not looked at them as operational platforms” until several years ago.
“We’ve now modernized how we acquire, how we set requirements, acquire and sustain our IT systems because they are operational assets just like a cutter or a ship,” he said, stressing that USCG just went live with electronic medical records across the country — the first service to achieve that. “We’re doing some mobile applications for our recruiters, for example, and we’re borrowing an Army program for that. We’re doing some work for our marine inspectors that brings MISLE to mobile. So, we definitely look to our peers for solutions that have worked for them and see how we can incorporate them. And we will do that as we recapitalize MISLE.”