Last month, President Trump unveiled his budget request for fiscal year 2018, which includes spending increases for the departments of Homeland Security, Defense, and Veterans Affairs. The preliminary budget proposed cutting nearly $1.3 billion from the Coast Guard to fund the administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, but bipartisan pushback has led to the retention of its current funding levels. How will the retention of current funding levels impact this vital maritime law enforcement, security, and rescue force? Can it maintain its motto of Semper Paratus (“Always Ready”)?
Currently led by Commandant Admiral Zukunft, the Coast Guard includes over 41,000 active-duty military personnel, nearly 8,300 civilian full-time employees, and 7,800 reserve military part-time forces. The law enforcement agency plays a critical role in the interdiction of narcotics and seized nearly $5.6 billion of cocaine in 2016 alone. They also reported an intercept of over 6,300 undocumented migrants, while patrolling 3.4 million nautical miles. As an organization involved in transnational law enforcement, their demand for assistance in training Central American forces with interdiction efforts also increased by 320 percent this year.
While the Coast Guard falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), it can also operate under the auspices of the U.S. Navy, during times of war or when the President directs such action. Because it exists within DHS, it is not subject to the same treatment as Department of Defense (DOD) agencies. Through the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, DOD was able to bypass many of the sequestration spending limits that were put in place in 2013 when Congress failed to agree on spending reductions. As a result, the military can better meet their demands and remain ready to serve, while the Coast Guard must struggle to make ends meet with fewer resources.
The Trump administration’s preliminary budget proposal for FY18 would have reduced the Coast Guard’s budget by $1.3 billion. These cuts would have nearly eliminated the maritime safety and security teams that perform counterterrorism security near major ports on the East and West coasts. After pushback for a constrained budget, the administration decided to maintain current funding levels for continuing operations and investments in acquisitions and improvements.
Breaking the Ice
A major setback from this budget would be to the Coast Guard’s polar icebreaker capabilities. These massive ships play a vital role in keeping shipping lanes open and operational while assisting in rescue missions. In its current fleet, the Coast Guard has two active-duty polar ice-breakers, one of which is in dry-dock and another, the Polar Star, which is nearing the end of its service. By comparison, Russia maintains a fleet of over 40 vessels, which help to maintain its own national security and economic interests in the Arctic Circle.
While testifying before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in March, Admiral Zukunft highlighted this flaw in the overall readiness of his service branch and its larger application. When asked by Senator Wicker (R-MI) what would happen if the Polar Star were to go offline, Zukunft replied, “If there is a gap with a heavy icebreaker, there are no other heavy icebreakers.” Growing international tensions with Russia, combined with the increased use of sea lanes in the Arctic Circle make the need for several functional and effective polar ice breakers. When icebreakers are not available they are traditionally leased on the international market, but current tension between the U.S. and Russia could inhibit this trade.
While capability is a vital component of any fleet, size also matters. The Coast Guard maintains a current fleet of 12 Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters (commissioned vessels), which are being replaced with a class of eight new national security cutters (NSCs). Though they are more capable and larger in size, the reduced fleet would negatively impact the Coast Guard’s reach, which, according to Zukunft, still operates in seas around six of the seven continents.
Traditionally, budget requests and continuing resolutions (CRs) include funding for agencies to modernize their current resources — acquisition systems, office space, or upgrading the current fleet. In its 2017 budget request, the Coast Guard requested hundreds of millions of dollars to modernize its financial, acquisition, and asset management solutions in line with Treasury and DHS directives. While not operating on the front lines as part of the fleet, the management systems in place for acquisition are necessary to ensure the best resources are obtained and utilized.
After budget documents were made available to members of Congress, a bipartisan push quickly rose to beat back the budget cuts to the Coast Guard. Led by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), 23 senators wrote a letter to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Mick Mulvaney, highlighting how the cuts contradict the President’s priorities for enhanced maritime security. The 14 percent funding reduction for the Coast Guard was quickly seized and used by supporters to show just how vital the agency is to maritime and border security.
What happens next?
While Coast Guard authorizing legislation awaits action before the House and Senate, the administration’s own action may help define readiness for FY18. Through an executive order and subsequent OMB guidance, the administration directed agencies to set comprehensive plans for reforming the federal government and reducing the civilian workforce. According to Director Mulvaney, “the government reorg [sic] is probably the biggest story that nobody is talking about…This is something that goes much deeper and to the very structure of government.”
Congress is in the process of funding fiscal year 2017, so it is too soon to tell if the Coast Guard will get the budget it needs. However, it is in the best interest of Senators from maritime border states, as well as those bordering the Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes, to make sure the Coast Guard has the resources to keep up counterterrorism and search and rescue efforts. Additionally, states like New Hampshire that are experiencing high opioid-related deaths will want to make sure the Coast Guard can interdict the sale of these narcotics into the country. Coupled with the fear of Russian superiority on the Arctic shipping routes, Congress may seek to expand the current Coast Guard funding levels.
The Coast Guard has many supporters on the Hill to ensure it has enough resources to operate, yet being ‘always ready’ requires more than that. Admiral Zukunft, congressional leaders, and newly appointed Cabinet officials (like DHS’s Secretary Kelly) will need to work together to build a fleet of heavy icebreakers and NSCs while supporting ongoing safety and security operations of the Coast Guard. In the context of a push for workforce reshaping, it’s important for agency leaders to keep the mission-critical functions of the Coast Guard in mind to ensure they are always ready.
Image Source: CNN.