Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp delivers the State of the Coast Guard address Feb. 23 aboard Coast Guard Base Alameda, Calif. (PO3 Caleb Critchfield / Coast Guard)
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They're gone. In a move that could trim about $1.4 billion from its shipbuilding plan, the Coast Guard lost two of its newest, largest, most capable — and most expensive — cutters in the fiscal 2013 budget request sent to Congress on last week.
As expected, the service is asking for $683 million to build one Bertholf-class national security cutter, the sixth of a planned eight-ship class built by Huntington Ingalls Industries at Pascagoula, Miss. The ships are replacing 12 worn-out high endurance cutters dating from the 1960s and 1970s.
But there is no request this year for long-lead funding for the seventh or eighth NSCs, and the service's five-year capital investment plan shows no money for new Bertholfs beyond the sixth ship.
Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard's parent agency, attempted to explain the elimination of the two cutters when she testified before Congress on Feb. 15 on the budget.
"What we are going to do, and this is all guided by really looking at the nation's resources and the Budget Control Act and how it works, and there's language in the budget request to this effect, we will look at seven and eight in light of what the Navy is doing," Napolitano said.
"So we need to look at what the Department of Defense is doing with respect to their own force ... to see what we need to be putting in the acquisition pipeline."
Napolitano did not elaborate on how the Navy's shipbuilding plans affect the Coast Guard requirement for eight NSCs, but she noted the struggle to get funding for the ships.
Napolitano said she has "fought very hard for those cutters in the three years" she has been in office. "We had a fight about getting four and five and six and the president has fully funded six. But we need to make sure that our resources are correlated with what, particularly, the Navy is going to do moving forward after that."
The Coast Guard referred all queries for comment on the matter to DHS, but Commandant Adm. Robert Papp didn't shy away from the cutters' importance when he delivered the annual State of the Coast Guard message on Thursday standing in front of Bertholf at its homeport of Alameda, Calif.
"Directly behind me, you see the future," he said. "The NSC is proving to be a vital instrument for protecting American maritime security and prosperity."
Papp admitted "our nation has made hard decisions on reductions," including accelerating the retirement of several Coast Guard vessels and a reduction of about 1,000 personnel. Two more high-endurance cutters and three 110-foot patrol boats are to be decommissioned in 2013. "This is necessary to make room to bring on our new assets," he said.
While not addressing the lost cutters specifically, Papp declared that his "most pressing concern is on the high seas," where the NSCs operate. "It's in the offshore region that I see the greatest risk. Patrolling the high seas requires cutters capable of sustained operations," Papp said, while enumerating the value of large, multi-mission vessels that can see decades of useful service.
Cuts a surprise
The loss of the two NSCs was not anticipated by many in industry and the Coast Guard, which had grown accustomed to the call for eight NSCs.
"It was a surprise to a lot of people," said one retired cutter officer.
Scott Truver, a longtime naval analyst who's now at Gryphon Technologies, had the same reaction. "The Coast Guard has long said, ‘we have to continue to make the case for the ships, because people in Homeland Security just don't get it.' They'd rather focus on security in ports and airports and dirty bombs. They overlook what it is the Coast Guard brings to the table."
"The requirement is still there for eight," Truver noted. But even if the two ships are reinstated after a gap of several years, the costs will inevitably grow.
"I'm concerned that short-sighted budget concerns are going to drive up the cost of the ships. If we have to wait for a few years to build the last two ships, all the economies of scale are going to be wasted.
"Given the threats we face today and in the future, the ships will be needed," Truver added.
Papp, in his Alameda speech, noted that despite the need to expand capabilities in the Arctic, the region lacks shore systems and infrastructure to support continued operations.
"But those capabilities are on the national security cutter," he said, and announced Bertholf — which normally patrols the Northern Pacific and the Bering Sea — would be sent to the Arctic, supplemented by "a couple" ice-capable seagoing buoy tenders.
Papp provided no further details on the new Arctic mission, but declared that "the imperative for expanded capabilities in the Arctic is now, not 20 years from now."
Coast Guard spokesman Cmdr. Chris O'Neil in Washington explained that "details are still ongoing," but said the time frame for the mission is likely "June until late summer."
The Coast Guard's 17th District in Alaska operates four 225-foot seagoing tenders, which are all normally busy handling aids-to-navigation duties. O'Neil acknowledged a deployment of two of the ships could put a strain on other operations.
The budget contained another surprise not widely anticipated — funding for a new polar icebreaker. The service is asking for $8 million in 2013 to begin the program, and a total of $860 million through 2017 for research, design and development and construction. The icebreaker funding plan will ask for $120 million in 2014; $380 million in 2015; $270 million in 2016; and $82 million in 2017. It is not clear if more money will be requested in 2018 and beyond, or if more icebreaker construction is being contemplated.
The Coast Guard has a requirement for three polar icebreakers and three medium breakers.
The budget also is asking for $54 million to operate and maintain the medium icebreaker Healy and reactivate the 1970s-era Polar Star, one of two Polar-class ships laid up for repairs.
Overall, the Coast Guard's 2013 request for acquisition, construction and improvements totals $1.19 billion, down $272 million from last year's $1.46 billion.