Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz told congressional appropriators this week that the service has had to play “some catch up” from the government shutdown after weathering storm seasons that already taxed resources, but the Coast Guard is “a pretty darn resilient and adaptable force.”
“The lingering effects of the shutdown, I think we’re 75 percent reconstituted,” Schultz told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security on Tuesday. “Some things that we never get back, we had to defer boat maintenance periods. Those were fleets of hundreds of small boats, cutter maintenance periods. Some of that just got pushed to the right. We had furloughed contracting officers; you just can’t do that kind of work. That is not recoverable.”
Schultz appeared before the House panel and testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security today to answer lawmakers’ questions about the state of readiness in light of the White House budget proposal.
President Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget request allocates $11.34 billion for the Coast Guard, including $9.32 billion in discretionary funding. The request includes $7.9 billion for Operations & Support, including $118 million for pay and benefits, $59 million for crew and shore-side support for new assets, $27 million for human capital support infrastructure and maintenance funding to address spare parts inventory shortfalls, and $22 million for the final phase of Federal Aviation Administration compliance upgrades.
The budget plan requests $1.2 billion for procurement, construction and improvements, including $792 million for vessels — $140 million for the procurement of two Fast Response Cutters, $60 million for post-delivery on National Security Cutters seven through 11, $35 million for Polar Security Cutter program management and production, and $15 million to extend the life of the Polar Star heavy icebreaker — and $200 million for aircraft, as well as $174 million for shore infrastructure projects.
Schultz stressed to lawmakers that the Polar Star sustained “several high-risk casualties to the ship’s engineering systems” during Operation Deep Freeze this winter.
“The ship’s crew had to battle a fire that left lasting damage to electrical systems; ship-wide power outages occurred during icebreaking operations. And in the same transit, divers were sent into the icy waters to investigate and repair a propeller shaft seal leak,” he said in prepared testimony. “Events like these reinforce the reality that we are only one major casualty away from leaving the nation without any heavy icebreaking capability.”
“Now is the time to address the erosion of readiness experienced in our service over the past decade due to near flat line funding for operations and support,” Schultz added. “While the demand for Coast Guard services has never been higher, we must address our lost purchasing power, the growing backlogs of deferred maintenance on our capital assets, and the degraded habitability of our infrastructure.”
At the House hearing, Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) said she was “surprised to see that the president’s request proposes just $35 million to continue the Polar Security Cutter program, which I understand would simply continue, as you said, support for the program office — and I remain concerned that the administration’s budget isn’t aligned with the funding projections in your five-year capital investment plan, as well as the program of record for certain assets.”
“Do you feel confident that the FY19 appropriation is sufficient for procuring the first PSC and are you comfortable not having additional procurement funding in FY20 for the long lead time material for the second PSC?” she asked Schultz.
The commandant said the president’s proposed allocation does allow maintenance of the program as the Coast Guard has yet to award the detailed contract to design and construct.
“But we can absolutely press forward with the $35 million on the Polar Security Cutter, anticipating a larger number in the ’21 budget as we start marching toward the second Polar Security Cutter acquisition,” Schultz added.
Ranking Member Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) questioned why Trump’s budget request includes only $140 million for two new Fast Response Cutters while the fiscal year 2019 omnibus provided $340 million for six new cutters.
Schultz stressed that “the cutters are absolutely needed.”
“The two Fast Response Cutters in the 2020 budget are really a reflection of the reality, and we are one of 22 agencies that resides within the Department of Homeland Security,” he said. “…Bottom line, it comes down to making trade space in the budget.”
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) asked what impact “an unchecked Russia-China presence in the Arctic region” would “have on our national security and sovereignty.”
“Do you feel that without American assets in the region we would be able to enforce international law and stake our claim to the natural resources?” the congressman continued. “And lastly, I’ve heard in the past that the Coast Guard needs three heavy and three medium icebreakers to counter Russia and China’s influence in the Arctic. Is this number still accurate, so we can focus our goals to help you?”
Schultz described Russia as “meddlesome with more resources” as “presence does equal influence” in the Arctic. He characterized China as a “near-Arctic self-declared state” that is “paying attention to us, fielding fifth-generation fighters to places like Elmendorf; they’re paying attention to what we’re doing with undersea cabling.”
“My strategy, I’ve talked about consistent with high-latitude studies, has been a minimum of six icebreakers. I’ve framed that conversation as three that are polar security heavy breakers like the one we’re talking about awarding here in the coming weeks, then three potential medium or less-capable breakers. There’s probably a conversation, you know, that’s some hybrid of that but that’s consistent with the high-latitude study. Russia does have upwards of four dozen icebreakers.”