- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

Key senators said yesterday the Coast Guard cannot rely on a World War II-era fleet of aircraft and cutters to protect the nation’s shores, and are urging the administration to cut in half the 22-year timetable for replacements.

That schedule, implemented in 2002, already is faltering and is estimated to take 27 years, said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and the committee’s ranking member.

“The daily demands on operational Coast Guard assets are unrelenting in the post-9/11 environment,” the senators said in a letter yesterday to Joshua B. Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The Coast Guard is a component of Operation Iraqi Freedom and has secured and escorted more than 200 military sea-lift departures from 10 U.S. seaports. Last year, it interdicted 11,000 illegal aliens arriving by sea and rescued 5,500 distressed mariners.

“The nation simply cannot afford to wait until 2024 or later for the Coast Guard to employ more effective and reliable assets to achieve more effective homeland security,” the senators said.

The Coast Guard operates one of the oldest of the world’s 42 major naval fleets — third behind the Philippines and Mexico.

“With many aircraft and cutters dating back more than a quarter of a century and some to World War II, we believe the Coast Guard cannot afford to wait 20 or more years to replace its deteriorating equipment,” the senators said.

The unyielding pace of replacements is taking a serious toll on aging ships and aircraft, resulting in a surge of maintenance costs.

In fiscal 2004, search and rescue helicopters experienced 329 in-flight power losses, more than five times the number that occurred in 2003.

Patrol boats that are the workhorses of the fleet are well beyond the recommended service life and last year experienced 23 hull breaches that required emergency repairs.

Poor readiness records haunt the large cutters, which were unable to perform on 358 patrols.

“These aging assets face declining readiness at a time when the Coast Guard is being called on to perform an approximate 25 percent increase in missions in response to the post-9/11 environment with the same amount of pre-9/11 obsolete and out-of-date equipment,” the senators said.

Studies by the Rand Corp. and the Coast Guard show that accelerating the acquisition program known as the Integrated Deepwater System to 10 years is viable and would save an estimated $4 billion.

“These reports conclude that speeding up this important program is not only feasible, but would ensure delivery of a more robust homeland security presence and capability sooner,” the senators said.

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