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House panel rips Coast Guard for red tape

Jun. 27, 2011 - 08:23AM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 27, 2011 - 08:23AM  |  
Lawmakers have charged that the Obama administration and Coast Guard are delaying the submission of a high-latitude study that could determine Arctic requirements, but at the same time are asking for $5 million to study polar needs.
Lawmakers have charged that the Obama administration and Coast Guard are delaying the submission of a high-latitude study that could determine Arctic requirements, but at the same time are asking for $5 million to study polar needs. (PA3 Andy Devilbiss / Coast Guard)
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Congressional patience with the Coast Guard's bureaucracy is wearing thin. Lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated with the service's inability to provide up-to-date budget and fleet plans and mission studies, and are seeking to compel the completion of a plan to recapitalize the aged icebreaker fleet.

In its late-May markup of the 2012 Homeland Security Department funding bill, the House Appropriations Committee repeatedly chided the Coast Guard for an abundance of study and a lack of action, yet the panel added $251 million to the administration's budget request, for a total operating budget of $7.07 billion. Following the markup, the DHS funding bill was sent to the Senate.

In its accompanying report, the committee withheld $75 million in appropriations until the service provides Congress with three studies: a revised future-years Capital Investment Plan for 2012 through 2016, reviewed by the Government Accountability Office; a 2012 second-quarter quarterly acquisition report; and the polar operations high-latitude study, described by GAO as the centerpiece to determining the nation's Arctic requirements.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp said most of those reports have been completed and are under review by the Obama administration. The operations high-latitude study, Papp told senators recently, is expected to be completed by this fall.

"We're working vigorously with the administration so we can continue moving [the studies] forward and get them to the Congress as required and then maybe free up that money," Papp said in an interview after a June 23 budget hearing before a Senate oversight committee.

The report also dings the service for not formally updating its mission requirements and fleet-mix analysis since 2004.

"The committee finds this protracted delay in updating mission requirements for the Coast Guard's post-Deepwater era to be a major impediment to effective budget planning," according to the report.

Various versions of the fleet-mix analysis are still being reviewed and have been sent to GAO, Papp said.

"The challenge is that these proposals that are in the fleet-mix analysis are based on an unconstrained budget environment, which we are not in," Papp said. "So that obviously provides some consternation for folks, and we're trying to work through that."

Concerns also remain about "the Coast Guard's persistent challenges with its internal financial controls," according to the report. "It is the single largest holder of unauditable balances in the department."

Appropriators noted that a change in administrative policies and the stretching out of the building program is adding $45 million to $60 million to the price tags for the last three national security cutters, the largest ships under construction for the Coast Guard. The committee directed the service to provide a brief on addressing the problems.

The report also notes that the first fast response cutter, under construction at Bollinger Marine in Lockport, La., is suffering from structural deficiencies that will delay its delivery, originally scheduled for this spring. The committee cut two cutters from the budget request for six and directed the service to hold off on expanding the annual FRC request from four to six until the first ship is delivered and has undergone operational test and evaluation.

More, not less, funding needed

One Capitol Hill analyst decried what he said was a Coast Guard tendency to put off hard decisions in preference to further study.

"They're always doing that," said the analyst, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. "The No. 1 deflection strategy of the Coast Guard is to say they're in the midst of a study about whatever you just asked about.

"Is the purpose of the study," the analyst asked, "to provide a dodge until you can start another study?"

What the service really needs now, the Capitol Hill analyst said, is to ask for more assets to carry out the vastly expanded set of missions it's been saddled with over the past decade.

"They don't want to be insubordinate; they've been told to support the president's budget," the analyst observed. "But they know they need more, and the way they avoid confrontation is to say, ‘We're studying the issue.'

"What you have is the long-term consequence of a service that we didn't have to invest in for a very long time, because their assets were aging in place. And we're now in a place where we need to increase the Coast Guard allocations, but at a time when the government at large is trying to shrink the budget. It becomes hard for any agency to make the case for a budget increase."

The service is aware its force of ships and aircraft is woefully short of the levels needed to fulfill its missions, the analyst said.

A Coast Guard fleet-mix analysis published in April by GAO provided a look at some of those numbers. The study showed that the service needs nine rather than eight national security cutters; 32 to 57 new offshore patrol cutters, rather than the 25 planned; and 63 to 91 FRCs, rather than the 58 planned.

The service also needs more aircraft, according to the study: up to 44 new HC-130 Hercules aircraft, rather than 22; 37 to 65 HC-144A Ocean Sentry maritime patrol aircraft, instead of 36; 80 to 106 HH-60 helicopters, rather than the 42 planned; and 140 to 223 HH-65 helicopters, compared with 102.

The highest numbers, according to the analyst, are those needed to fully perform the mission. "Everything else represents different, arbitrary levels of constraint," the analyst said.

The study, said the analyst, shows that the Coast Guard is not buying enough assets to carry out its missions, despite the addition of new ships and aircraft.

"Even with the increase in capability," the analyst noted, "they still won't have nearly the capability they need to project themselves."

Staff writer from reader">Jill Laster contributed to this report.

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