- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Coast Guard joke is that one must be 6 feet tall to join the service — in order to walk back to shore when the boat sinks.

But it was no laughing matter on Capitol Hill yesterday, where lawmakers held an oversight hearing on an aging inventory of cutters that have suffered numerous hull breaches and routinely miss operation duties because of failing subsystems.

A House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee study reports that in-flight engine failures aboard HH-65 helicopters are “alarming and dangerous.”

“Not all has been smooth sailing,” Adm. Thad Allen, Coast Guard commandant, told the subcommittee on Coast Guard and maritime transportation.

“The Coast Guard has suffered a rapid deterioration of legacy assets in recent years,” the congressional report says. “As a result, funding for the Deepwater program has been diverted from the already slowed asset replacement schedule to maintain these increasing numbers of failing legacy assets. This, coupled with shortfalls in appropriated funding levels and increasing maritime homeland security operations, has accelerated the impacts of this downward spiral, increased costs to sustain the old assets and reduced funds available for new assets.”

The $24 billion Integrated Deepwater System project is often behind schedule and over budget. The money is being spent to modernize or replace nearly 100 ships and 200 aircraft that are past or approaching the end of their service lives.

The administration is asking for $934.4 million in funding for fiscal 2007, a slight increase over this year’s $923.7 million.

Adm. Allen says improvements have been made, particularly on the HH-65 helicopters that were widely used during the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort.

Upgraded helicopters flew 85 sorties and saved more than 300 lives in the aftermath of the storm that flooded New Orleans for weeks and left residents stranded on rooftops.

“The Deepwater program’s conversion and enhancement of legacy aircraft and cutters are making an impact now,” Adm. Allen said.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, New Jersey Republican, says he is “disappointed” in the length of time that it is taking to get new ships to the agency. The first national security cutter is not scheduled for delivery until next year.

“Every year we delay the purchase of new assets, the men and women of the Coast Guard and our taxpayers lose because the cost of maintaining legacy assets significantly increases, eating more and more of the money available to purchase replacement assets,” Mr. LoBiondo said.

“Exacerbating the problem are the failures surrounding the development of the replacement to the 110, the Fast Response Cutter,” Mr. LoBiondo said.

The Washington Times reported last August that corrosion-covered hulls were being replaced and extended on the stern by 13 feet.

These modifications were supposed to let the “110s” launch small boats to approach and board suspicious vessels. However, the project proved unsuccessful, further damaged some cutters and breached hulls.

Last year, the Coast Guard intercepted nearly 10,000 aliens attempting to enter the country illegally by sea.

Adm. Allen says the increase in alien interception is 100 percent over 2001 “and the second highest number in any nonmass migration exodus over the past 20 years.”

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