As one of the six armed services, the U.S. Coast Guard has several missions, including defense readiness – maintaining the training and capability to integrate with the Department of Defence’s (DOD) forces when needed.
The Coast Guard does not develop its operations budget – the section of the Coast Guard budget it uses to fund operations – by mission. Instead, it bases the budget on cost categories, such as vessels, aircraft, and personnel. This is because these are key cost drivers and perform multiple statutory missions.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the defense readiness mission accounted for a small portion of Coast Guard deployments and operational expenses from fiscal years 2011 through 2020. The Coast Guard’s vessel and aircraft deployments for the defense readiness mission accounted for about 5 percent of deployments during this 10-year period—ranking eighth out of 11 statutory missions. However, the Coast Guard also deploys vessels and aircraft to support DOD through its other statutory missions, including drug interdiction; ice operations; and ports, waterways, and coastal security. Similarly, defense readiness represented an estimated 7 percent of the service’s total operating expenses for fiscal years 2011 through 2020. GAO found that the share of the Coast Guard’s defense readiness estimated operating expenses was lower than those of seven of its 11 missions.
The government watchdog noted that the Coast Guard’s appropriations for operations were relatively flat or declined from fiscal years 2011 through 2020, when adjusted for inflation. Specifically, the operations appropriation – the primary funding source for operations across all missions – was $8 billion in 2011 and $8.2 billion in fiscal year 2020, when adjusted for inflation. The Coast Guard’s operations appropriations also included specific funding for defense-related activities, which includes the defense readiness mission, as well as its other activities to support DOD.
When adjusted for inflation, the Coast Guard’s appropriations for defense-related activities declined about 20 percent – from $674 million in fiscal year 2011 to $530 million in fiscal year 2020.
GAO found that the Coast Guard’s largest annual DOD force commitment, representing about half of its total commitments for fiscal years 2011 through 2020, was for U.S. Southern Command. The Coast Guard’s Drug Interdiction mission supports the U.S. Southern Command’s drug detection and monitoring efforts in the Eastern Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean drug transit zone.
In addition to its operations appropriation, the Coast Guard receives reimbursements from DOD for specific activities, such as escorts of Navy submarines conducted by Maritime Force Protection Units and service on combatant commander staffs. GAO found that about 50 percent of the reimbursements during the 10-year period ($411 million of $844.6 million) were for the Coast Guard’s security escorts of navy vessels in U.S. ports. According to the Coast Guard, reimbursements are not designed to replace or cover the costs of its overall commitments to DOD.
GAO’s report also examined operational hours and found that the number of defense readiness vessel and aircraft operational hours varied by year, as did total vessel and aircraft operational hours across all missions. For example, in fiscal year 2011, the Coast Guard reported both the highest total operational hours and defense readiness operational hours (about 77,800 hours, 10 percent of total operational hours). In fiscal year 2020, the Coast Guard reported both the fewest total operational hours and Defense Readiness operational hours (about 23,500 hours, 4 percent of total operational hours).
Coast Guard officials said certain deployable specialized forces – units trained to handle counterdrug, terrorism, and other threats – drove the higher number of defense readiness operational hours in fiscal year 2011. They attributed the lower number of defense readiness operational hours in fiscal year 2020 to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.