Article Published in the National Defense
Recent reports from Washington claim that the war on drugs is in danger of taking a turn for the worst at the source — in Colombia, where the government struggles to come up with the money and equipment to combat the ever-expanding drug cartels.
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the so-called “drug czar” of the United States, has declared a national-security “emergency” in Colombia, even as critics claim that growing American involvement in South America equates to yet another “another Vietnam.” The Clinton Administration response has been to throw more money at the problem, in the form of more than a billion dollars to support the Colombian government and enable it to buy high-tech military equipment.
But while the specter of “another Vietnam” in Colombia may be news to many Americans, grappling with the reality of the drug war is business as usual to the Coast Guard. On the opposite end of the drug pipeline, the service continues to fight its war every day in the waters surrounding American shores. In fact, the Coast Guard battles two fronts in that war — one at sea and one on Capitol Hill.
Ironically, while the American government mulls an aid package to Colombia that would total nearly one quarter of the Coast Guard’s annual budget, the service struggles more and more in its drug-interdiction efforts on the high seas and in the air. The problem is that the Coast Guard finds itself increasingly outgunned and outrun by drug dealers who have vast sums of money to invest in vessels, aircraft, radar and communications equipment — all designed to elude the Coast Guard’s aging ships and planes. In fact, some drug cartels today have more money than a small nation and fleets of boats and weaponry that would rival some nations’ coastal navies — witness Colombia itself. That puts more pressure on the Coast Guard, as it must cover more area, both visually and electronically, and respond more quickly — and more forcefully, in some cases — than ever before. The Coast Guard accounts for about 25 percent of all drug seizures by the U.S. government, but that number represents an interdiction rate of only 11.4 percent of all illegal drugs estimated to cross America’s borders. Indeed, the service, feeling the pressure of a surging tide of smuggling, aims to increase its interdiction rate to at least 18.7 percent by 2002.
That’s actually a lot to ask, given the near-obsolete condition of the Coast Guard’s equipment. For example, all of the Coast Guard’s cutters will reach the end of their service life in the next 15 years; most are more than 30 years old. In fact, the Coast Guard still operates vessels built during the World War II era. The vessels also face what the service calls a “capability gap.” In other words, current cutters lack the speed and sensors needed to effectively detect and apprehend drug smugglers and possess only a limited ability to share tactical information, a key requirement in today’s digital age.
The deficiencies are not restricted to ships. The Coast Guard owns a variety of fixed- and rotary-wing airframes, not all of which are integrated properly with communications suites and sensors. For example, the HH-65A Dolphin helicopter’s sensor capacity is less than it could be because of payload restrictions. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter can land on only the largest cutters.
And though the deficiencies are particularly noticeable in drug interdiction efforts, they are by no means restricted to that arena. Stretching the Coast Guard even thinner is the growing demand for Coast Guard involvement in law enforcement regarding fisheries rights on the world’s oceans as well as enforcing immigration laws. This is, of course, in addition to the Coast Guard’s domestic mission of providing search-and-rescue services along American coastlines.
The service also views itself as taking on more and more “national defense” missions. And though Loy is quick to point that the Coast Guard is in no way trying to become more like the Navy or compete with the “gray hulls,” he also notes that the Coast Guard will find itself increasingly involved in matters of national security overseas. At a recent national-strategy symposium, Loy pointed out that many regional threats articulated in President Clinton’s national strategy policy have “significant maritime aspects.” These include arms smuggling, drugs, pirates and other terrorists, blockade runners, illegal immigration and fisheries violations, all of which have been in the Coast Guard’s domain in one form or another since the inception of the Coast Guard’s forerunner, the Revenue Cutter Service, in 1790.
If that is true, it certainly makes a strong case for a capable Coast Guard to take on those missions that, as Loy put it, are along that fine line between military and law-enforcement authority, which is precisely where the Coast Guard resides.
Years of erosion
Of course, the Coast Guard’s woes didn’t develop overnight. Years of buying what it could afford rather than what it needed has left the Coast Guard with its mixed bag of ships, aircraft and communications equipment. And not only is that equipment passing into obsolescence, it’s being worn out as well, as the service sees its operational tempo increase nearly every year. The growing number of missions has prompted Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James Loy to liken his service to an overused knife whose blade grows duller by the day. That pace has transformed the service’s motto of “Always Prepared” into “Always On The Job,” a condition that has pushed people and equipment to the limit. Already, Coast Guard leaders, from Loy down, have urged commanders to find creative ways to relieve the pressure on its crews and ships while saving money. For example, in January, rising fuel prices prompted the commander of the Coast Guard’s Eight District to reduce operations by 20 percent across the district.
The Deepwater Solution
One solution to the deteriorating capabilities of the Coast Guard is its “Deepwater” program, the most ambitious acquisition effort it has ever undertaken. It will upgrade the capabilities of the Coast Guard’s entire inventory — about 93 cutters, 200 aircraft, communications gear and supporting logistics — mostly by replacing the old with the new. This time however, the new will be what the service truly needs, not what it can get at bargain prices.
The goal of the program is the integration of all of the parts into a powerful, synergistic whole, a force flexible and capable enough to more fully conduct counterdrug operations in the Caribbean, enforce fisheries laws in the Bering Strait or operate alongside the Navy in a national contingency, such as the recent war in Kosovo.
But rather than focus its efforts on specific platforms, such as cutters or aircraft, the Deepwater program is based on requirements for the Coast Guard’s capabilities. Those requirements are determined through a team of Coast Guard personnel and industry representatives familiar with the Coast Guard’s roles and missions. For example, Bath Iron Works, one of the nation’s premier shipbuilders, is the lead designer and builder of the Navy’s Aegis-equipped Arleigh Burke-class destroy.
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