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.

Changing Planet