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Coast Guard commandant says budget cuts will hurt

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; A04

The U.S. Coast Guard will risk a drop in readiness and become a more "fragile" force to accommodate cuts in President Obama's 2011 spending proposal, its commandant, Adm. Thad W. Allen, is expected to say today.

In a preview of the service chief's fourth and final annual State of the Coast Guard address Friday, aides said Allen will describe hard choices to meet Obama's call for belt-tightening in the federal government while fulfilling the Coast Guard's top budget priority, replacing obsolescent ships and planes.

"We are ready and resilient, as we demonstrated in the first hours and days following the Haitian earthquake," in which Coast Guard ships and planes were the first U.S. assets on scene of the Jan. 12 disaster, Allen is to say, according to an excerpt of prepared remarks provided to The Washington Post. "That said, our force is more fragile this year than last and we are accepting increased operational risk while recapitalizing aging cutters."

Of 12 major cutters assigned to Haitian relief efforts over the past month -- or more than one-fourth of the Coast Guard's fleet of vessels of that size -- 10 suffered mission-altering breakdowns, the service said, and three were forced to return to port or dry dock with propeller or propeller-shaft problems, the Coast Guard said.

The incidents recall a December 2007 incident in which the Coast Guard's oldest ship, the Cutter Acushnet, dropped a propeller and shaft at sea because of corrosion. The Acushnet is to be retired in 2011 after entering Navy service as a salvage ship in 1944; it saw action in the Pacific theater at Iwo Jima and Okinawa before being transferred to the Coast Guard in 1946.

Under the Coast Guard's 2011 spending plan, its funding and active-duty personnel would drop about 3 percent, to $10.1 billion and 41,984, respectively.

To trim roughly 1,112 military personnel, the service will decommission the Acushnet and four other of its oldest and largest cutters -- whose average service life is 41 years, compared with the Navy average of 14 years. The Coast Guard also plans to retire four HU-25 Falcon medium-range surveillance jet aircraft and five HH-65 Dolphin search-and-rescue helicopters, and dissolve five of 12 90-person marine safety and security teams.

The savings will pay for more capable replacements, including two top-of-the-line National Security Cutters and a new HC-144A Ocean Sentry patrol aircraft. Also planned are four new 154-foot Fast Response Cutters and 10 medium response boats.

The downsizing is a reversal for Allen, who lobbied hard during his tenure to expand the Coast Guard, saying it could easily grow by 1,500 to 2,000 members a year. The uniformed ranks of the country's smallest military service grew by an average of 1,000 over eight years in the past decade, reversing cuts in the 1990s that took it to a low of 34,000 active-duty members.

The retrenchment comes at a time of increased demands. Already tasked with marine safety, aiding commercial navigation, and enforcing environmental laws, the service increased homeland security missions for drug and migrant interdiction, port security and support of national defense after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Several Coast Guard patrol boats perform security missions near Iraq in the Persian Gulf, while a receding polar ice cap and expansion of navigable Arctic waters has led some to call for a bigger Coast Guard role there.

In a statement, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, called proposals to cut personnel, eliminate security teams and decommission ships before replacements are available "penny wise and pound foolish."

By replacing five cutters with two, the Coast Guard's "operational gap" -- the number of hours its vessels spend at sea compared with the agency's stated goal in a 2004 study -- will expand by nearly 5,000 hours, from 129,780, according to Byrd aides.

Byrd's House counterpart, Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), said the Coast Guard has been slow in delivering an updated strategic plan for its troubled $24 billion fleet replacement program, called Deepwater, which is costing more and taking longer than planned.

"How do we know that these moves will not open long-term capability gaps similar to the ones we have been struggling to fill over the years?" Price said. "I'm not automatically opposed to supporting the requested cuts, but there needs to be a stronger justification."

Republicans were harsher. Rep. Hal Rogers (Ky.), the ranking GOP member of Price's panel, said Obama's proposal reduces the number of Coast Guard vessels able to keep pace with Navy ships on important escort missions and will leave coastal cities including New York, San Francisco and New Orleans less secure.

The cuts are "indefensible" amid a war with Mexican drug cartels and a crisis in Haiti, Rogers said, while the Department of Homeland Security proposes to pay $200 million for state and local costs of securing "unwanted terror trials in the U.S. and . . . increased DHS bureaucrats in Washington."

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