- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 10, 2005

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the Coast Guard’s fleet of orange-and-white cutters is rusting away. As The Washington Times reported Monday, 22 of the Coast Guard’s 49 110-foot cutters have corroded hulls and some “actually had holes in the hull and water coming in.” A top Coast Guard official told Congress last month that only about a quarter of the cutters are mission-capable.

In an age when the Coast Guard is called on to perform new antiterror duties, its old and decrepit fleet poses significant liabilities. This has not been unexpected: For years, forward-thinking voices have called for overhauling the Coast Guard. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, for one, called for it to be doubled in size a few years ago. A year after the September 11 attacks, in an influential study for the Heritage Foundation, Bruce Stubbs, a retired Coast Guard officer and former cutter commander, concluded that “the expansion of the Coast Guard’s homeland-security operations after September 11 caused a major reshuffling of its mission priorities and assets.” Yet, Washington has allowed the Coast Guard to languish.

The reason appears to be in part congressional politicking: The Coast Guard is relatively small compared to other armed services; it lacks much in the way of a constituency despite its popularity with the public; and it is largely ignored by lawmakers. Merging the Coast Guard into the Department of Homeland Security has further embroiled it in homeland-security-appropriation battles that it might otherwise have avoided.

The latest such battle features Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican and chair of the House homeland-security appropriations subcommittee, who last month slashed the White House’s proposed $966 million 2006 budget for the “Deepwater” project, the Coast Guard’s answer to the aging-fleet problem, to $500 million. He accused the Coast Guard of asking for “the most expensive, all-inclusive Cadillac Seville,” vowing to “fit you into something more appropriate.” Mr. Rogers and other committee members have been waiting to see detailed plans on how the Guard will spend the money. “It is a simple equation,” Mr. Rogers said. “No information equals no money.”

The fiscal oversight is heartwarming, but it misses the urgency of the problem. For more than a decade, the Coast Guard has been woefully underfunded. The Clinton administration left the Guard unprepared for dramatic new antiterror missions after September 11. After the terrorist attacks, the Coast Guard found itself short 4,000 reservists; it had no detection or protection capabilities for chemical, biological or nuclear weapons; it was short of handguns and ammunition and servicemen qualified to use them; and it lacked intelligence-coordination abilities. It couldn’t even send classified information to port captains. The Bush administration has yet to rectify those problems.

As federal spending goes, half-a-billion dollars for a vital agency like the Coast Guard is a drop in the funding bucket for homeland security. We can’t defend our shores with a rusty Coast Guard fleet. Now it’s time to get increased funding on the way.

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