- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2000

Despite all the talk about defense budget increases and the need to modernize our armed forces, one service is in danger of being left behind.

Although no service does more with less, budget cuts seriously endanger the readiness of the Coast Guard. In fact, due to budget shortfalls, the Coast Guard was left with no choice but to slash certain operations by 10 percent.

Simply put, underfunding the Coast Guard imperils the safety, security and prosperity of Americans at home and on the high seas. From saving lives at sea and responding to oil spills, through drug interdiction and alien migrant interception, to prevention of the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction, the Coast Guard frequently will be the first and sometimes the last line of defense for the U.S. homeland, particularly on our maritime borders.

While the Coast Guard is one of the most admired institutions of government, it tends to be forgotten during the budget wars. Although the Coast Guard attended all of last year's readiness meetings with the president, the Coast Guard was not included in the emergency supplemental legislation that the administration submitted to Congress. Only after bringing this omission directly to the attention of Congress was the Coast Guard able to secure some funding in the 1999 Emergency Supplemental.

Again this year, the supplemental funding request for the armed services failed to provide sufficient funds for the Coast Guard's most pressing readiness needs.

On top of that, the president's budget sought to slash the Coast Guard Reserve by almost 10 percent, even though the requirements for the Coast Guard Reserve have increased exponentially. In fact, no other reserve force is as fully integrated into its active duty counterpart as is the Coast Guard Reserve.

Underfunding the Coast Guard is particularly distressing because the United States has always been a maritime nation. Earlier this year, in its report to the president, the Interagency Task Force on U.S. Coast Guard Roles and Missions "reinforced the value of a multi-missioned Coast Guard with law enforcement, and humanitarian-focused emergency-response authority, and military capability… ."

As anybody at the Pentagon will tell you, freedom isn't free. The same is true for maritime security. If we are to preserve that security we must be willing to fund the Coast Guard sufficiently. This state of affairs is also ironic. Government Executive Magazine reported in March that the Government Performance Project gave the Coast Guard its highest mark an overall A for the second time. Clearly, the Coast Guard is as efficient and cost-effective a governmental entity as any taxpayer could hope for. Although the FY 2001 budget does request a 14 percent increase in Coast Guard funding, the real test is yet to come.

The measure of the Coast Guard's fiscal health will be taken next year, when its acquisition budget must double from $400 million to $800 million for the next 15-20 years to pay for rebuilding the Coast Guard's aging deep water fleet. The age of the fleet is indeed striking. When the cutter Laurel was recently decommissioned, it completed 58 years of service, meaning it dated back to World War II.

Although the Coast Guard has squeezed every efficiency out of its critical deep water recapitalization project, maritime security cannot be assured into the 21st century without sufficient funding for modern ships. Every day, the Coast Guard labors on in relative obscurity. Since 1790, it has defended our maritime borders and sovereignty, conducted daring rescues, interdicted drugs and illegal aliens, ensured security of our ports and waterways and responded to oil spills.

For two centuries, the Coast Guard has lived up to its motto, "Semper Paratus," always ready. But without sufficient funding, will the Coast Guard be reduced to "Semi Paratus," sometimes ready?

As we enter the summer boating season, think about the men and women of the Coast Guard who stand watch over our waterways and know that without sufficient funding to ensure a robust Coast Guard, America's borders and maritime security will be endangered as we enter the 21st century.

Jayson Spiegel is executive director of the Reserve Officers Association.

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