Article Published in the Defense News
When most people think of the U.S. Coast Guard, they think of a small-boat force that risks life and limb in crashing surf and stormy seas to rescue errant boaters. Perhaps they imagine a sleek cutter, armed Coast Guardsmen at the rail, bearing down on Caribbean drug smugglers in pleasure boats.
But Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James Loy is quick to point out that the Coast Guard is much more than that, as evidenced by recent deployments to such faraway places as Kosovo, where Coast Guard crews operated in concert with the Navy, a trend the Coast Guard sees as growing, not diminishing.
But as that demand increases, so do others. The service faces a drug-smuggling threat that gets more sophisticated each year. The increasing global demand for fish has the Coast Guard hard-pressed to protect America’s fishing rights and enforce fishery laws.
But while the demand goes up, the capabilities go down. Loy recently likened his service to a sharp knife: “… work it relentlessly, [and] the blade will also become dull.” Years of piecemeal purchases — buying what it could afford rather than what it needed — left the Coast Guard with a mixed bag of ships, aircraft and communications equipment.
Further, obsolescence is catching up with 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.
Besides age, the vessels face what the service calls a “capability gap.” Current cutters lack the speed and sensors needed to effectively detect and apprehend drug smugglers. Its ships possess only a limited ability to share tactical information, a key requirement in today’s digital age.
This deficiency is a serious drawback to the Coast Guard’s ability to operate and communicate within the Navy’s tactical data networks, which it must be able to do while deployed alongside the Navy.
The deficiencies are not restricted to surface vessels. The Coast Guard’s air fleet contains a variety of fixed- and rotary-wing airframes. Like the ships, the aircraft were purchased piecemeal over several decades, which prevented the proper integration of communication gear and sensors, and the integration of aircraft with ships.
For example, the HH-65A Dolphin helicopter’s sensor payload 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 a handful of cutters.
One solution to the deteriorating capabilities of the Coast Guard is the 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, 206 aircraft, communications gear and supporting logistics.
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 or operate alongside the Navy.
But rather than focus its efforts on specific platforms, such as cutters or aircraft, the Deepwater program is based on requirements the Coast Guard has for the capabilities it needs. 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 destroyers, one of the most advanced warships in the world. Should that expertise be applied to Coast Guard hulls, the service’s vessels could conceivably be the technological equivalent of the Aegis ships, which make joint operations much easier for both services.
The advanced radar systems would also give back to the Coast Guard its edge in the drug-interdiction effort. The process to determine the Coast Guard’s requirements has already begun.
In 1999, the Hamilton-class Midget conducted an experimental deployment with the Constellation battle group in the Pacific. Lessons learned from that deployment will shape requirements for future Deepwater hulls.
Congressional leaders have begun to pay attention to the Coast Guard’s vital role in national security. The Government Performance Project at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, a group that analyzes federal agencies, recently named the Coast Guard as one of the best-managed and most fiscally responsible agencies in the federal government.
With such a proven track record, the Coast Guard deserves a commitment from Congress and the White House to keep the service capable of performing its mission effectively.
The Navy’s operational tempo in today’s post-Cold War reality points to a Coast Guard that, in addition to its domestic mission, will see its demand for deep-water missions continue to increase. That demand can’t be met with out-of-date equipment and inadequate resources.
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