Coast Guard contemplates low budget future

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The Coast Guard has started a portfolio review of its capabilities compared to its missions in light of a shrinking budget, said the service's second in command before a June 26 House panel.

The review, which is being conducted with the Office of Management and Budget and the Homeland Security Department, will establish "given levels of funding, what we will be able to do and what we will not be able to do," said Vice Commandant Vice Adm. John Currier before the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Coast Guard and maritime transportation.

The hearing comes against a backdrop of a sharp reduction in the White House fiscal 2014 proposed budget for the service and a 5 year capital investment plan under which acquisition dollars would never total more than $1.2 billion annually, and would more often hover close to $1 billion annually--and sometimes below it.

The House in its version of the fiscal 2014 homeland security spending bill voted earlier this month to fund Coast Guard acquisition at a level well over the White House proposal--$1.22 billion versus $951 million--but even that higher amount is less than the approximately $1.46 billion annually the service has been appropriated in recent years for acquisition.

Budget cuts in the form of sequestration have already reduced the number of days the Coast Guard can spend on counternarcotic operations in the eastern Pacific, Currier said.

"While we will never compromise our ability to do search and rescue and the most critical law enforcement missions, there is a reduction in our ability to put steel on target for certain areas," he said.

The portfolio review, which Currier stressed multiple times would be a combined statement of the Obama administration, DHS and the Coast Guard, will guide capital spending decisions--for which Currier said the service is emphasizing offshore recapitalization.

The service aims to make a downselect decision on the Offshore Patrol Cutter, selecting three finalists for the design competition, by the end of this fiscal year, Currier said, adding that it will take about another year to settle on the final design.

He also said that it won't be until late 2017 that the crew rotation concept for National Security Cutters can be full tested. The first three NSCs, all home ported in Alameda, Calif., must undergo dry-docking for "configuration enhancements that were identified later in the class that need to be retrofitted."

Average time away from homeport will until then average 210 says; after 2017, that should increase to 230, Currier said. The legacy High Endurance Cutters the NSCs replace have a baseline 185 days away from homeport, although age-onset deterioration has made it increasingly difficult for the 378-foot HECs in particular to achieve that. An August 2012 Government Accountability Office report found that its operational hours from fiscal 2005 through 2011 declined by about 32 percent.

Currier said the Coast Guard also still awaits a final decision on the number of C27J airplanes the Air Force will transfer to it. If it gets all 14 that it wants--the Forest Service is also set to receive at least seven of the planes for firefighting--then the Coast Guard would probably stop acquiring additional HC-144A airplanes, he added.

For more:
- go to the hearing webpage (prepared testimony and webcast available)  

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