In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Coast Guard rescued over 33,000 lives. The unexamined tragedy of that disaster is how many more people could have been saved if the Coast Guard had been better equipped. The Coast Guard’s helicopters, ships and communications systems are generally old and relatively few in number. With the next hurricane season here the failure to invest adequately in the Coast Guard could result in serious loss of life.
One system that could have made a difference last year and will in future natural disasters is the Maritime Security Cutter, medium. This is one of three new classes of ships being built as part of the Coast Guard’s Deepwater modernization program. The presence of this vessel would have made a dramatic difference during Hurricane Katrina. Today, the Coast Guard conducts sea operations without onboard helicopters or unmanned aerial systems (UAS). The current fleet of ships has only antiquated communications capabilities. The new medium cutter will have a state-of-the-art flight deck that can carry, launch and recover a helicopter and two UASs. For search and rescue this means more flying hours, greater area coverage, and more assets in the air longer. This all translates into lives saved.
One of the reasons for the catastrophe in New Orleans was the absence of a command-and-control system that would have allowed coordination of the various local, state and federal rescue and recovery efforts. The medium cutter could have provided such a capability. The cutter will be equipped with a state-of-the-art command-and-control system, something the Coast Guard does not possess today, which can oversee communications, reconnaissance and intelligence information and activities not only for its own ships and planes, but for those belonging to the Pentagon, law enforcement and emergency responders.
In addition to providing support in the event of natural disasters, the medium cutter would significantly enhance the Coast Guard’s ability to perform its other missions. The medium cutter will have important advantages over those ships now in service in such areas as range, at sea time, area coverage and responsiveness. Whether it is counter-narcotics, fisheries patrol or supporting Pentagon operations globally, the medium cutter will make a substantial contribution to this nation’s security.
There is only one problem. The Coast Guard is not likely to get many of these new medium cutters very soon. Because the Coast Guard was never adequately resourced, its ships, planes and helicopters are wearing out at an alarming rate. This prior lack of funding has forced the Coast Guard now to stretch out the procurement of new ships, planes and helicopters in order to find money to pay for keeping older equipment working. The first medium cutter will not reach the Coast Guard until 2009.
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