Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said that “the readiness of the Coast Guard continues to be an issue, as it does with all of our service agencies,” but told senators that “when you have a limited budget, you have to focus resources” and lift some programs over others.
At a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security to discuss the administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) noted that the Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleet in the Great Lakes has declined from 14 to nine vessels over the past 40 years.
“I’ve asked the president to include funding to build a new Great Lakes icebreaker, but all I’ve heard back is that other Coast Guard needs are more important,” Baldwin said. “I would note that in your opening statement you equated economic security and national security. The Coast Guard’s fiscal year ’21 request includes no funding for this new icebreaker.”
Wolf said he has spoken with Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz about the service’s icebreaker capabilities, and the USCG has “a number of priorities.”
“Several of their priorities, as I mentioned, is that polar security cutter, which would be the second one, as well as their offshore patrol cutter, which really will become the backbone of what the Coast Guard does,” he said. “Those continue to be the priorities for the Coast Guard. Those are high capital investments.”
As far as Great Lakes icebreaking capability, Wolf said Schultz “feels comfortable where they sit today; obviously the Mackinaw, but then they have a number of smaller vessels that provide some capability as well – but we’ll continue to have that dialogue. You know, limited resources. We have to prioritize.”
Speaking broadly about the service’s contributions to homeland security, Wolf stressed that Coast Guard cutters are providing interdiction capability both in the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific. “And so it’s using intelligence that we gather from a number of different agencies, but it’s Coast Guard men and women on ships, in the air, as well as CBP assets, as well, that are providing that interdiction of all the illicit drugs coming from South America on a daily basis,” he said. “They have a law enforcement mission… that’s a little different from DoD’s mission, and so they are a natural partner to our DoD assets, looking to protect the homeland.”
“How has the department prioritized the Coast Guard’s counter-drug and border security missions versus the demand signal for Coast Guard’s assets in support of the combatant commanders?” asked Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.).
“It’s a delicate balance that the commandant has to do every week and every month,” Wolf replied, adding that “the Coast Guard is happy to provide support to DoD and serve along them in the Indo-Pacific, Middle East, and elsewhere.”
“When we had issues flare up in Iraq and Iran at the beginning of the year we had Coast Guard men and women deployed there in support of DoD as well. So it’s a balance. They certainly have to do their maritime mission here in the states, here in the homeland, their drug interdiction capabilities. They have many missions, but we’re happy to support and serve alongside DoD professionals overseas, as well.”
Testifying on Wednesday before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Wolf noted that “if you put the outline of the U.S. on the Eastern Pacific and the Caribbean that is what Coast Guard patrols with a handful of ships — and we will continue to do that, but it is a very challenging task.”
“I will also say that is just one part of it. Obviously when they interdict the drugs it’s critically important but it is also the investigators that are then talking to those individuals, gleaning information, trying to bring them on as sources and the like to again get at the issue, at the source,” he said.
“Removing these drugs before they make it into Mexico is vitally important,” said Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), expressing disappointment that the president’s budget request removed funds for a 12th national security cutter and froze the fast response cutters. “Once it makes it into Mexico it is pretty much in America and, you know, I think we can afford to fund these Coast Guard assets more because these drugs are destroying our communities, they are destabilizing the countries in South and Central America, probably leading to the mass migration that we are seeing at our southern border, and it is being driven by transnational criminal organizations.”
Wolf vowed to “continue to work with the commandant” and “obviously they still very much believe in the national security cutter and the mission that they have, so it is a budget like any other budget where there are trade-offs that have to be made.”
“So we want to make sure that they have capability in the polar region as well as the new offshore patrol cutter capability, but we will continue to work with Congress on what the right priorities are going forward,” he said.