Coast Guard budget cuts have long term effects

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In the race against time and money that Coast Guard recapitalization turned into once austerity became the watchword in Washington, D.C., time and money appear to be winning.

For evidence, let's look at the fiscal 2014 Coast Guard budget request, which shows a 13 percent inflation-adjusted cut relative to current levels. Included in that is the decimation of the aircraft acquisition budget, which would go down by 92.24 percent. Vessels, it is true, would actually go up by 13 percent to $743 million, and that amount would fund construction of the seventh National Security Cutter.

But the budget is silent on the fate of the eighth NSC, and given pressure from some parts of the Homeland Security Department and the Government Accountability Office to cut the NSC program of record, it's easy to suspect that the Coast Guard is right now fighting a rearguard action to prevent its elimination.

The budget is also hazy on icebreaker acquisition. It includes $2 million for continued studies on the matter – after having requested $8 million last year – but doesn't make any projections about procurement funding for future years. Despite the Arctic's clear pattern of disappearing sea ice and resultant likely increase in shipping, it's not difficult to again suspect that budget concerns may be forcing a Coast guard retreat.

In a year when spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 have forced many agencies into an unwilling position of austerity, it can be difficult to argue that the Coast Guard should be an exception. I'd argue that the current round of cuts is far worse than need be, and that political flexibility on revenue collection would do much to alleviate conditions, especially since taxes are at historic lows as measured by percentage of gross domestic product. But that's an argument for another day – for now we are faced with a spending situation that's forcing many agencies to cut their noses to spite their faces.

But it just so happens that that the Coast Guard is in period of its history where what occurs during the next few years will affect its ability to execute its mission for decades to come – and greatly affect America's ability to be a strong presence in the melting Arctic. The Coast Guard budget should be funding long term capabilities, and failure to do so will hurt us more than the short term gain of spending reductions. In short, the Homeland Security Department should find a way to fund the Coast Guard at a level greater than its proposed for fiscal 2014 – if not in the coming fiscal year, than in the year after it. For the service, this is a pivotal moment, and which way it goes can be directly seen by its budget numbers. - Dave