The U.S. Coast Guard Needs Lots More Ships
Nearly twice as many—but extra money is unlikely
The U.S. Coast is in the middle of one of the most comprehensive shipbuilding programs in its history. All told, the lifesaving branch of the Department of Homeland Security is on track to acquire 91 new patrol cutters by the early 2030s, replacing 90 older vessels dating as far back as the 1960s.
But 91 new vessels isn’t nearly enough, the Coast Guard has claimed. In fact, the rescue branch wants 157 new cutters—two-thirds more than the White House and Congress have been willing to pay for.
Those 157 cutters—plus the hundreds of aircraft the service wants—would cost as much as $72 billion, compared to $43 billion for just the 91 ships.
Which is to say, don’t hold your breath for the larger fleet.
The Coast Guard possesses three main classes of cutters—large, medium and small. The service has already acquired four of the new Legend-class large cutters—each 418 feet long, roughly the size of a Navy frigate—and is working on four more to finally replace a dozen 1960s-vintage Hamilton-class vessels.
The Legend-class ships are the most capable of the Coast Guard’s vessels. Each boasts a 57-millimeter gun and facilities for a helicopter and costs around $745 million, making the Legends about as expensive as a fully-armed Navy vessel of the same size.
For less demanding patrols—and to replace the service’s main 210- and 270-foot ships—the Coast Guard plans on buying 25 Offshore Patrol Cutters for around $450 million apiece starting in 2018.
To round out the fleet, the Coast Guard has been acquiring 58 Sentinel-class small cutters—each 154 feet long and costing $73 million. The Sentinels are replacing older patrol boats at a rate of several per year.
All together, the three main shipbuilding efforts cost the Coast Guard just shy of $900 million a year, a sum that the Government Accounting Office in 2011 declared to be unaffordable. The GAO advised the service to ask for fewer ships.
Instead, the Coast Guard insisted it needed more ships and more money. Specifically, another billion bucks a year for a couple decades in order to buy 66 more ships—including an extra Legend, 32 more Offshore Patrol Cutters and 33 more Sentinels.
To be fair, the Coast Guard said it had a good reason for wanting more vessels. In 2009, service officials assessed the fleet’s ability to perform all the missions that the government assigns to Coast Guard cutters—and found that 91 ships was dangerously inadequate for five of them.
The missions that 91 cutters could only accomplish at “high risk” or “very high risk” include search and rescue, drug interdiction, port patrols, fisheries-protection and wartime combat operations alongside the Navy.
In May 2012, Adm. Robert Papp, the Coast Guard commandant at the time, told Congress that his service needed “closer to $2 billion” annually for new equipment, more than twice as much as legislators had been appropriating.
Two billion dollars a year could buy the 66 extra cutters by the early 2030s.
The Congressional Research Service more or less concurred with Papp’s assertion, albeit in a roundabout way. In a January report, CRS analyst Ronald O’Rourke calculated how much money the Navy spends on new ships and concluded that the sailing branch’s shipbuilding costs are half as great as its personnel costs, but the Coast Guard spends only a quarter as much on ships as it does on sailors.
If the Coast Guard invested proportionally as much in new vessels as the Navy does, according to O’Rourke, the rescue branch’s shipbuilding budget would rise to—you guessed it, nearly $2 billion. Precisely what Papp said his agency needed.
But there’s little chance of a budgetary boost. Automatic “sequestration” budget cuts have actually reduced Coast Guard funding by $200 million annually in recent years. And in late 2014, Congress voted to fund the Department of Homeland Security only through February, rather than for the entire year.
The reason—Republican lawmakers, who gained a Congressional majority in 2015, want DHS funding to expire early in the year so they can use the department’s budget as leverage as they try to block Pres. Barack Obama’s immigration reforms.
The Coast Guard can’t even count on stable budgets, much less bigger ones. So it doesn’t matter if 91 cutters is too few. That’s all that the government has been willing to pay for. And the situation’s not likely to improve for the lifesaving service.