US CG Cutters debate: the beginning of a “never-ending story”?

WH ‘Hammered’ Allen on CG Woes

White House officials pressured the Coast Guard commandant to tone down comments that his service faces serious threats to its ability to respond to emergencies such as the Haitian earthquake disaster, DoD Buzz has learned. A source with close ties to the Coast Guard told us this morning that the “White House hammered Allen” once they saw a draft of his final State of the Coast Guard speech. Basically, he was told, you’ve got your budget now get out there and defend it.

The Coast Guard sailed right into Haiti after the earthquake. Their High Endurance Cutters –average age close to 41 years — were the prime assets the Coasties relied on to get people and equipment to Haiti. They made it there, but as Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen has made clear, the HECs are tired and limping after their latest deployment.

Allen’s proof: 10 of the 12 cutters had to head into port for serious repair work as a result of their latest deployment. Adm. Allen offered that number during his State of Coast Guard speech on Friday afternoon. In a Jan. 19 message to his command, Allen described the Coast Guard’s rapid response to the disaster: “The next morning, Haitians witnessed President Obama’s pledge — “You will not be forsaken and you will not be forgotten” — become reality when the cutter FORWARD arrived with the rising sun as the first American asset on-​​scene. Amidst the devastation, FORWARD delivered damage assessments, critical command and control capabilities, and most importantly — hope.” After his speech, Allen talked with reporters and I asked him if the Coast Guard might not able to deploy the next time it faces a serious global disaster like the earthquake or a tsunami. He said it’s possible that might be the case. Obviously, his response was carefully calibrated to keep the White House off his back while offering the most honest answer he could muster knowing that his forces are close to crippled. Think of the implications: the nation’s first responder to major nautical and coastal disasters, the fleet that watches the Caribbean and Atlantic for drug smugglers is limping along, one rusted hull, one fire away from being knocked out of commission permanently.

Our source close to the Coast Guard noted that the Coast Guard cutter Dallas — which transited the Panama Canal from the Pacific to get to Haiti — and three of her sister ships are on the decommissioning list for the 2011 budget. So when the next crisis hits, our nation may well be left without one-​​third of her Coast Guard blue water fleet. Not to mention the other three or four ships that my need serious repairs if they deploy. On top of all that, there is the strategic threat to our ability to maintain an Arctic presence. Allen noted after his speech at the National Press Club that our two nuclear ice-​​breakers have about seven years of operational life left, the same amount of time it will probably take to build replacements.

[Eds. note — Only Russia has nuke ice breakers. My mistake. CSC]

“We have a looming crisis and that’s the condition of our Arctic icebreakers,” Allen said. But the Coast Guard can’t budget any money until the White House decides just what our Arctic policy will be in the face of increasingly open waters in the far north. “That policy discussion cannot happen soon enough,” Allen said, clearly hoping to move things along at a slightly less than glacial pace. On top of the Arctic policy woes, the country has not yet budgeted for one of the ice breakers. The estimated cost: a very substantial $1 billion. That is not the kind of money one scrapes together at the last minute, especially for a service already facing what analysts like to call “a constrained budget environment.”

By Colin Clark

Too Few CG Cutters For Demands

Before becoming Navy undersecretary, Bob Work wrote an excellent white paper on naval power where he sketched out a notional future fleet. Work said that when calculating U.S. naval power it’s important to include the 160 cutters and nearly 800 small boats of the Navy’s “closest ally” the Coast Guard, which together with the Navy make up the “National Fleet.”

Since most foreign navies are more akin to coast guards, Work reasoned, the Coast Guard is often better suited to dealing with those foreign navies than the Navy itself.

On a conference call with reporters yesterday, I asked Coast Guard commandant Adm. Thad Allen how his service’s well-​​publicized budget woes are affecting that National Fleet idea.

Allen started off by saying he works closely with CNO Adm. Gary Roughead, along with Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway, on refining naval operating concepts that aim to stitch up the “seam” between the high-​​end of Coast Guard cutter capability which is the low end of naval combatant capability, and figure out how to generate some overlap and redundancy for missions that fall into that seam. However, he doesn’t have much in the way of available ships to feed into that seam.

While there is a clear “demand signal” from the various combatant commanders for cutters to assist in building partner nation capacity around the world, Allen said, maintaining a continuous forward presence beyond a couple of cutters is too much for his force. “The real question for me is how much force can we put at the (National Maritime) strategy given the size of our fleet. The demand signal right now is larger than our fleet.”

The Coast Guard maintains a single cutter about “one-​​third to half the time” operating with Africa Command and another cutter at “a little less than that” with Pacific Command, he said.

Allen revealed a bit of the tension that exists between Navy and Coast Guard shipbuilding plans, saying the National Security Cutter is better suited to partnering with foreign navies than the Littoral Combat Ship. “[The National Security Cutter] can operate independently, it can steam 12,000 miles, operate for 60 to 90 days without replenishment, and is used to operating independent of a battle group, without the need of an oiler, which the LCS would need.”

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