Changing Planet

The Coast Guard We Deserve

George F. Mobley/National Geographic Stock

Every day the U.S. Coast Guard goes in harm’s way to assure the safety, security and environmental stewardship of our public seas.  Sometimes they pay the ultimate price as did 34-year-old Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne, killed December 2nd when his rigid inflatable boarding boat was run over by a suspected drug smuggling boat off of southern California. Despite its daily pursuit of smugglers, poachers and suspected terrorists, the Coast Guard is best known for its search and rescue work including its outstanding response during Hurricane Sandy where it saved the lives of 14 out of 16 people aboard the tall ship HMS Bounty that went down off the coast of North Carolina. On average they save ten people a day, every day of the year (Chief Horne won a commendation for his leadership in operations that saved 38 lives when he was based in North Carolina). Along with maritime rescues and law-enforcement actions, the Coast Guard also responds to oil spills and other environmental disasters, runs the nation’s icebreakers, inspects fishing boats, ships and bridges, maintains navigational buoys and does just about anything else needed on our waters. But perhaps not for much longer.

Unlike the Pentagon whose gargantuan budget, facing a 10 percent cut over the next decade, became an issue during the Presidential campaign and continues to divide congress, the Coast Guard, now part of the Department of Homeland Security, has been hit with a four percent cut to its 2013 budget including a 25 percent reduction in its long-term acquisition funding for new vessels and aircraft, and that’s before any fiscal cliff.  I’ve seen the wear, rust and broken weapons systems on their maritime-museum-quality 378-foot high-endurance cutters (oceangoing ships) some dating back to the Vietnam War.  A dozen of these ships were supposed to be replaced by eight new National Security Cutters but that number has now been reduced to six by the Obama administration. Only three have been delivered to date. Coast Guard 210- and 270-foot medium-endurance cutters (high-seas patrol craft), some almost 50 years old are also reaching their maximum safe lifespan and despite repeated mechanical breakdowns, the call for a design proposals for 25 new ships to replace the 28 existing ones is just now expected to be finished in January with the first eleven cutters not expected to be operational before 2025.

Ongoing funding cuts could cripple the effectiveness of this smallest of our armed services (with 42,000 active duty personnel) but this threat to our public seas has yet to generate significant resistance from either republican or democratic politicians on our coasts, Great Lakes and major rivers where the service operates. Two notable exceptions have been Rep. Frank LaBiondo (R NJ) who’s held house hearings on the funding cuts and Senator Maria Cantwell (D WA) who added language to the service’s reauthorization bill to keep one of the Coast Guard’s three sea-going icebreakers (two of which are now out of operation) from being scrapped.

Rep. LoBiondo warns the service faces a “death spiral” if its aging fleet of cutters and aircraft cannot be replaced quickly enough to meet its expanding missions.

During years of reporting on the Coast Guard from Hurricane Katrina where they saved over 33,000 lives to Alaska, Florida, New York, New Jersey and the Persian Gulf I came to appreciate they are proof that government can work for the public good. They even take an inordinate pride in their ability to operate on the water cost-effectively with limited resources, relying on enlisted members to take leadership initiatives, a civilian volunteer “auxiliary” to promote boating safety and a well honed command structure able to surge resources where they’re needed.  Unfortunately every time the U.S. Coast Guard has bragged about its ability, “to do more with less,” Congress and the White House have proven willing to give them less. It’s now reached a crisis point that, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office, “will likely result in more cocaine and illegal migrants reaching U.S. shores and a decreased capability to protect U.S. waters.” And while the Coast Guard fleet is in decline, ocean and coastal threats are on the increase including in the Arctic, where melting sea ice has led to a new ‘cold rush’ for oil, minerals and trade routes as well as off California where a tightening of the U.S. Mexican land border has increased maritime smuggling of drugs and people leading to this month’s tragedy. This is why every citizen who likes what they see on ‘Coast Guard Alaska,’ or  ‘Coast Guard Florida’ on cable TV or news reports of the sacrifice of Coast Guard heroes like Chief Horne or who have gotten some direct help from ‘the Coasties’ as they call themselves, ought to call, write and email their elected representatives and demand we fully fund and maintain the Coast Guard we deserve.


David Helvarg is executive director of the Blue Frontier Campaign and author of “Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes.” His next book, ‘The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea,’ will be out in February.

  • Eric Nordstrom

    The US Air Force has passed through similar situations in the past and in the present. The Coast Guard may need to beef up it’s NDT. Nondestructive Testing of core parts on the airframe could result in prolonging the longevity of its current fleet. is a great example of a company who could provide said services, but for purposes of this comment/article it can provide a glimpse into what NDT actually is.

  • Richard Brahm

    That was a great read! David it was great working with you out in Alaska when you were working on Americas Forgotten Heroes and I see you are still continuing the good fight! Thank you for shining some light on our oft forgotten service.

    – Richard Brahm

  • Rev. Donald C Crooks

    As a retired CG officer (1979) and having served on 378′, 210′, 311′, 125′ vessels, some dating from the 2nd WW, both as enlisted and commissioned officer, I am vary honored to have served in many capacities. It is my fervent hope, that the needs of the CG are met and then some, because the American people receive more benefits of saved lives, safer shipping and boating, drug interdiction and counter terrorism for the resources supplied than any other government agency I know of. Yes, I am biased, but the facts speak for themselves. May the CG fulfill it’s motto: “Semper Paratus”.

  • Matt McKenna

    When I was in the USCG back in the early 1990’s, the ship I was stationed on (USCGC Ironwood) celebrated it’s 50th birthday, and she was not the oldest ship in the Coast Guard. Something needs to change, they need to be properly funded and supported.

  • Ken Gouge

    I have been in the service for 23 years. What people are missing is that it is part of the big plan. If we legalize everything and open the borders, what do we need all these ships for? We can just use the small boats to be water police and perform rescues! I am being sarcastic, but it is all based on the priorities of our elected officials. Our Coast Guard budgets have been low for years, but the National debt is growing. The money has to be going somewhere…

  • Ken Gouge

    I should also mention that my last unit was a 44 year old 378 foot Cutter, and I was Terrell Horne’s Chief for several years while he was a BM1. My comments were meant to be derogatory towards the way the Coast Guard is treated by the government, not derogatory towards the service.

  • MKC Phil Waldron

    Hey David, it’s Wally from the ’07-’08 crew of USCGC WRANGELL (WPB 1332) on which you sailed in the North Arabian Gulf. Great read as always, though I’m compelled to point out just one minor detail. No one ever “wins” commendations, they are awarded them.

  • A

    As a Coast Guard attorney who responds to letters written to Senator and Representative, I can promise you that writing really does matter. Please, take the advice of this article. REALLY, WRITE YOUR CONGRESSMEN, it probably matters more than voting.

  • John Frost

    I was stationed on the USCGC Sassafras in 1993-1996 in Hawaii. It was a great ship during WWII, it a sailed a lot of miles when I shipped out on her and we put a lot more miles on her. Drydocks to repair “thin” spots in an icebreaker hull is scary, When you tap it with a hammer and you hole the ship. When you go to sea in a 50 year old ship you pray to god that the hull is solid.

    Because when everyone else is headed away from the storm. We are headed in to the jaws of the beast.

    If we lose the CG, we lose even more than some people understand.

  • Rita Sweeting

    Although I am not a U.S. citizen I have a son-in-law who is a Coastie. My husband and I are incredibly proud of him and the commitment he has to his family and his country. We are also very proud of our daughter who completely supports her husband in his choice of career. I hope and pray that the government of your wonderful country will recognise the valuable contribution that the Coast Guard makes every day.

  • Dale

    I suppose the photo of the Sikorski HH-3F helicopter is appropriate as it relates to the CG driving dated relics. The Pelican captured in the photo above was replaced in the early to mid 90’s by the MH-60 (A modified Army Blackhawk) which the CG terms the Jayhawk.

    Although the photo above appears to be taken in Alaska I would have searched for a pix of the current airframe and primary SAR platform; the MH-60. There are bound to be an assortment of photos on the heels of the Weather Channel most popular and number 1 rated series “Coast Guard Alaska”

  • James McCaffrey

    The Coast Guard major procurement process is fraught with problems. Too small to effectively compete with the Navy for ships or the Air Force for aircraft, the CG inventory of capital assets is an island of misfit toys, hand-me-downs, and low-bid items. The first two classes of ships Donald Crooks mentions above remain in service, and the final 311 went out of service some 46 years after her Navy launching as a seaplane tender. The senior leadership has no coherent plan for oversight of aircraft and vessel fleet renewal and no sense for where the missions of the service are going. And until they do, the problems are going to continue to get worse. Plenty of NDT is done at both phase and depot level maintenance for airframes, but all assets are used beyond their design service life, which is not a recipe for fleet effectiveness.

  • BRR

    NDT is not a problem anywhere in the CG. The problem is that if a part fails, there is nothing to replace it. For the ships such as the Polar Star and Polar Sea, the engines are so outdated that they had to actually fabricate new ones. Same for the larger cutters, there are no spare parts when something fails. The CG operates under financial restrictions unheard of in any other service and it is at the point where it will start to impact the CG’s mission capabilities and crew safety.

  • Keith Bridgman

    Good job of writing. Spent four years in the Coast Guard back in the mid-1970’s. Money was tight then as well…always has been for this branch of service. It’s a credit to the men and women of the USCG to how well they perform on a shoestring.

  • Jackie Papers

    Ships and planes aren’t the only issue either… The USCG is supposed to be the expert in port security. Who is protecting all of the ship manifests, bill of ladings, crew registries, AIS system, sky cranes, and transportation systems when the USCG doesn’t even have a Cyber component to handle that? Don’t forget 93% of everything you own arrived by ship.

  • Michael Bolin

    I served on a CG Cutter and learned that our operational guns were working well but were made up of older component, that we changed out parts with a local public musium coordinator to upgrade our guns. Alway making due with leftovers seems to be the CG way. Appropriate funding and upgrades would be the best thing that happens for the future CG. It would also be appropriate for the services to certify and document their technicians so they can compete with the civilian populace when they return to their civilian lives.

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