Coast Guard must be more public in its case for all 8 NSCs

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Pressure on the Coast Guard not to purchase the last two of its planned eight National Security Cutters is great and comes from many directions--including officials at the Homeland Security Department, which even considered in a 2011 cutter fleet study limiting the service to only five NSCs.

That the Coast Guard believes the NSCs are vital to mission execution is clear, but the supporting argument it makes for that is muted--at least compared to arguments made against the NSC program of record, including those from the hyper-articulate Government Accountability Office.

Some of that muteness may be cultural, as has noted Ron O'Rourke, a naval analyst with the Congressional Research Service. The Coast Guard goes through roller-coaster patterns of recapitalization, meaning that it's not accustomed to constantly selling its need for ships to Congress, as the Navy is. The service is also used to doing what it can with what it has--an admirable attitude, except when it works against you in getting what you need.

The Coast Guard also appears leery of arguing in detail about its need for NSCs in public for fear of driving a further wedge between it and the Homeland Security Department. The service isn't alone in that predicament--all agencies must defend budgetary decisions they disagree with.

But matters seem to be coming to a head. The fiscal 2013 DHS budget proposal didn't include hulls 7 and 8 in the future years spending plan. If GAO analysis is to be accepted, they never will be, because their inclusion would send the future years capital investment plan into unaffordable heights. And if DHS analysis is to be believed, the defense mission for which the NSCs are a necessity could be satisfied with the deployment of just 3.5 NSCs annually.

The DHS study also finds that Coast Guard efficiency is generally a function of on-station presence, meaning that it's better to have more less-capable boats than fewer more-capable ones. (Although the DHS cutter fleet study probably takes this too far by suggesting that Offshore Patrol Cutters be abandoned for a specification closer to the legacy 270-foot cutters that wouldn't operate well at higher sea states found at higher latitudes during bad weather--and it's pretty clear that the warming Arctic Ocean will increase the need for cutters up there.)

In short, arguments against the NSC program of record on grounds both practical and strategic have piled up in public to the point where the Coast Guard must answer them, in public. - Dave