After 9-11, America rediscovered its Coast Guard. The nation’s smallest military service was buried in the byzantine Department of Transportation during the 1960s, and has been forced to operate on a shoestring budget ever since. From its isolated headquarters on Washington’s aptly-named Buzzard’s Point, the Coast Guard has managed to do a very good job of rescuing distressed boaters, catching drug smugglers, interdicting illegal immigrants and enforcing environmental laws. Syracuse University’s Maxwell School gives it an “A” for management. But it was overstretched even before 9-11, and homeland security has added a huge new burden.
With over 90,000 miles of coastline and dozens of busy ports, it is no easy task to secure the maritime approaches to the United States. In the absence of continuous surveillance, vessels from the open sea could approach to within a few hundred yards of Wall Street, the Pentagon, and many of the nation’s most important industrial sites. The Coast Guard’s answer is not to police every isle and inlet, but to focus on securing the most important ports while pushing the maritime surveillance perimeter far out to sea. For example, merchant vessels are now subject to inspection at sea, and must disclose their contents and crew identities days before reaching America.
Unfortunately, the Coast Guard’s most important initiative for pushing the nation’s maritime perimeter out seems to have drifted into a budgetary Sargasso. It is called the Deepwater Project, and was conceived to replace the service’s aging fleet of ships and planes for accomplishing missions over 50 miles from shore. “Aging” is something of an understatement in this case — the current fleet of Coast Guard deep-water vessels is close to being the oldest naval fleet in the world, and its decrepit collection of aircraft is often unavailable due to maintenance problems.
It’s bad enough that drug smugglers outrun Coast Guard cutters. The larger issue is whether the service’s patchwork of sensors and communications gear could even find some threats before they reach shore. The Deepwater Project is supposed to fix these problems by implementing an integrated “system-of-systems” that will bring interdiction capabilities into the information age. President Bush lauded the program in a speech on June 24 of last year honoring Port Authority heroes, saying, “The whole purpose is to push out our maritime borders, giving us more time to identify threats and more time to respond.”
However, the Bush administration has never managed to fund Deepwater at the planned level of $500 million per year in 1998 dollars. In fact, the program is $400 million short after only two years. Insiders say the 2004 budget may be another disappointment. If that’s so, homeland security and the Coast Guard’s other missions will suffer for years to come. Transportation Security Administration head James Loy, a former Coast Guard commandant, recently called for more focus on securing maritime transit against terrorists. A good place to start would be by funding the Deepwater Program at the planned level.
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