- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

Corrosion-covered hulls on the Coast Guard’s fast-response cutters are forcing the Homeland Security agency to try to replace the aging fleet a decade ahead of schedule.

Officials had hoped to double the life span of its 110-foot cutters, which the Guard calls “110s,” by replacing thinning and leaking hulls, and then lengthening the stern 13 feet. These modifications were supposed to let the “110s” launch small boats to approach and board suspicious vessels.

However, the project proved unsuccessful and further damaged some cutters, with at least one suffering a hull breach.

Instead, the new plan before Congress places a high priority on replacing that entire fleet of 49 vessels with new 140-foot cutters beginning in 2007.

“We’re moving it as fast as we can,” Adm. Thomas Collins, Coast Guard commandant, said in an interview with The Washington Times.

“We’re continuing to see deterioration of the 110s and had some design complications with the efforts to the extend the stern — buckling and cracking and things like that — and 22 of the 110s have experienced some form of corrosion in the hull needing emergency repairs,” Adm. Collins said.

Eight cutters will have been converted to 123 feet when the project is halted in September.

“We decided to stop, take our pulse, and re-evaluate the current strategy. The plan before Congress, which has been approved by the administration, is to truncate the program at eight vessels, then accelerate the ultimate replacement of the 110s,” Adm. Collins said.

Only one-quarter of this fast-responder fleet is “mission capable,” Rear Adm. Patrick Stillman told the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security at a July 22 hearing. “That’s a problem,” he said.

Additionally, six of the cutters are overseas in the Persian Gulf working alongside the Navy protecting offshore oil platforms and inspecting other ships.

Adm. Collins also told the panel several cutters “actually had holes in the hull and water was coming in.”

“That’s our challenge, managing the aging assets and getting the most out of them as we can, as we buy, as quickly as we can, the new ones,” Adm. Collins said.

The White House budget request of $966 million for the Deepwater program to stabilize and modernize the Coast Guard fleet was slashed in the House to $500 million for fiscal 2006 by Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican and Appropriations’ homeland security subcommittee chairman.

The entire 25-year Deepwater project is estimated to cost $24 billion and includes 58 new fast-response cutters. The project to sustain the existing “110” cutters and purchase the new fleet is being supplemented with $49 million through the Operation Iraqi Freedom 2005 budget.

Mr. Rogers’ spokeswoman said her boss is committed to the project, but wants to enforce fiscal responsibility.

“The department has been a reluctant partner and has ignored requests for information and direction to move expeditiously in the implementation of important national policies and goals,” Mr. Rogers said in a House floor speech introducing the spending bill.

“The department will find the lack of information has cost them. … Deepwater is funded at pre-September 11 levels — $500 million. This is $466 million below the request. It is a simple equation: no information equals no money,” Mr. Rogers said.

Coast Guard officials decided to end the conversion program in May after a hull breach in the first refitted cutter, the Matagorda.

“When the first one was taken out of the water, we anticipated growing pains, then we realized [the ships] were in far worse shape,” said Cmdr. Jeffrey Murphy.

The standard thickness of a hull is 0.125 inches, and is replaced when worn or corroded down by 15 percent of that thickness, said Cmdr. Neil Meister, chief industrial staff at the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore, which is responsible for fully modernizing and replacing many of the cutter hulls.

The most vocal critic of the spending cuts is Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on oceans, atmosphere and fisheries, which oversees the Coast Guard.

“It is unconscionable there would be less funding for these decrepit vessels and aircraft they are using in the most precarious of missions,” Mrs. Snowe said. “We are compelling those men and women to engage in the most difficult and life-threatening conditions and circumstances in rust buckets that are 40 to 65 years old, in tough ocean conditions, fog and turbulent weather.

“The rationale or justification to provide such minimal funding is inconceivable. We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, and now we will have to spend more money to repair legacy assets rather than devote the money to new equipment,” Mrs. Snowe said. “It doesn’t get much worse than this.”

The final funding battle comes in September when the House and Senate take their individual spending bills to a conference committee.

“A lot is at stake as this moves through conference,” Adm. Collins said.

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