- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2000

With January's cold snap, the Hudson River at West Point and beyond froze solid and upstate New Yorkers suddenly faced a heating oil crisis. The barges carrying millions of gallons of oil couldn't get through. U.S. Coast Guard to the rescue. Coast Guard Cutter Penobscot Bay has been "hard-water sailing" as ice-breaking duty is called for during the past several weeks so that heating oil and other commerce could get through.

On Feb. 3, Coast Guard cutters on the other side of the United States were on the scene within minutes of the crash of Alaska Air flight 261 searching for survivors. And it is the Coast Guard that operates cutters year-round from Maine to Miami and San Diego to Seattle to stop the flow of illegal drugs and illegal immigrants into our country. The Coast Guard, Semper Paratus "Always Ready" or is it?

The Coast Guard has long been the "quietest" as well as the smallest U.S. military service, performing its missions without much notice or appreciation from the American people unless, of course, they needed rescue at sea or an immediate response to some pollution disaster. From its beginning as our nation's first maritime service in 1790, the Coast Guard has been protecting the United States, its citizens and its commerce. The Revenue Cutter Service was established by Congress to enforce the collection of tariffs. The Lighthouse Service, the Life Saving Service and the Bureau of Navigation soon followed. These maritime agencies helped protect trade and commerce, which were so vital to our fledgling nation, as well as aid people caught in extremis at sea. It was from these multiple maritime agencies that the modern Coast Guard was formed with its mission to protect the public, the environment, and U.S. economic and security interests.

During the past decade, the missions of the Coast Guard have been expanded with ever-greater needs in treaty enforcement, pollution control, counter-drug operations, port operations, marine safety, and more. However, just like its sister military services, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, the Coast Guard has been asked to perform more and more missions with fewer resources. Aging ships and aircraft, increased operational tempo, fewer people, inadequate training, spare parts shortages, and insufficient funds for housing, pay and benefits these are the symptoms of a weakened U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is losing its edge. It has been stretched to the limit, and it is time for the Clinton administration and Congress to wake up. The Coast Guard performs valuable services for our country. If we want those services to continue, Congress is going to have to provide more funding.

After years of all but ignoring the problems facing America's Coasts, the Clinton administration last year established an Interagency Task Force to review the roles and missions of the Coast Guard. The Task Force was tasked with providing specific recommendations on Coast Guard missions and funding requirements for the coming decades. The Task Force report will soon be released and it is almost certain that the Task Force will document the continuing need for a robust, modern, well-equipped Coast Guard. It is equally certain that the Task Force will acknowledge that major budget increases will be necessary to provide the Coast Guard with the modern cutters, boats, helicopters, command-and-control systems, and trained people necessary to fulfill its assigned missions. It will not be cheap. But it will be necessary.

For the administration and Congress, the time for action is now. The Coast Guard is presently stretched to the limit. The Coast Guard commandant has said that the Coast Guard is a dull knife and it is getting duller every day. If we value the things that the Coast Guard does, then we as a nation need to pay the price to sharpen that knife. When Alaska Air flight 261 went down, the families of those who ultimately perished surely expected the Coast Guard to be there. And it was. The question President Clinton and Congress have to answer is: Will the Coast Guard be there the next time?

President Clinton's proposed Fiscal Year 2001 budget does propose a much-needed increase in funding for the Coast Guard, including $110 million for a new icebreaker to keep the Great Lakes ports open during the winter. That aside, however, most of the increase in the Coast Guard's budget will go to current operations keeping the service's head just above water today, but with little investment for the cutters, aircraft, and systems needed to meet tomorrow's requirements. Much more funding will be needed to provide the kind of Coast Guard our nation needs. More than $500 million more per year will be needed just to fund the next generation of cutters capable of operating far offshore and more will be needed to fund the many smaller cutters, boats and aircraft needed to protect our more than 95,000 miles of coastline.

The Coast Guard can carry on its tradition of Semper Paratus only if the president and Congress in this administration and the next face up to the problems that plague our nation's all-too-quiet military service.

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