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FY17 Coast Guard Request Strikes Balance Between Rebuilding the Fleet and Managing Risk

by Ronald A. LaBrec
February 10, 2016

Polar Star, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, completes ice drills in the Arctic in this July 3, 2013 handout photo. (Petty Officer 3rd Class Rachel French/U.S. Coast Guard/Courtesy Reuters)

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The hot-off-the-presses fiscal year 2017 presidential budget request includes a $10.3 billion top line request for the Coast Guard and several areas of progress for Coast Guard modernization. Despite record funding for acquisition, construction and improvement (AC&I) of capital assets in 2016, the FY17 request continues a general trend of lower AC&I funding that began in 2013. The investment in several key shipbuilding programs, however, is important as the service focuses on meeting its missions with an ancient fleet. The majority of the service’s offshore ships are between thirty and fifty years old. While most have gone through major service-life extension projects they are reaching the end of their useful lifespan and are becoming increasingly unreliable and costly to maintain.

In the “2017 Budget in Brief,” the Coast Guard makes clear the request balances current operations with the need to invest in future capability: “The evolving fiscal environment requires a risk-based approach to our operations and support initiatives as we position our Service to meet the evolving demands of the 21st century.” The Coast Guard uses a risk-based approach to describe allocating available resources to the highest mission needs or to mitigate the most damaging potential consequences.

The budget request prioritizes three areas: investing in the twenty-first century century Coast Guard, sustaining mission excellence, and maximizing value to the nation.

Investing in the Twenty-First Century Coast Guard

With $704 million going toward surface fleet AC&I, the budget requested $150 million to accelerate the acquisition of a new polar icebreaker as promised by President Obama in September.  The budget document also discusses planning for additional ice breakers, which is important in light of a 2011 study that found the Coast Guard requires between six and ten icebreakers to meet U.S. needs for polar access at a time of great change in the region. The Coast Guard operates the nation’s sole operational heavy icebreaker, Polar Star, which is reaching the end of its extended lifespan, as well as the medium icebreaker Healy. Officials have stated it could take up to a decade to build a new icebreaker, citing the fact that a heavy icebreaker has not been built in the United States in nearly forty years.

Also of note is the inclusion of $100 million for long lead-time materials for the first offshore patrol cutter. This class is expected to include 25 ships to replace the service’s existing fleet of 29 medium-endurance cutters built between the 1960s and early 1990s, most of which are past their intended service lives, yet continue to perform some of the service’s most demanding offshore missions.

The budget also requested four fast patrol cutters, part of a planned fifty-eight ship buy for coastal search and rescue, border security, drug and migrant interdiction and disaster response. The budget will continue to modernize existing aircraft and the effort to bring excess Air Force C-27J airplanes into the fleet for medium range response, patrol and surveillance. Overall AC&I spending is down $808 million (minus 42-percent) from 2016’s high level, and down $93 million (minus 8-percent) from 2015.

Sustain Mission Excellence

To sustain mission excellence, the service requested $85 million more for operating expenses than in 2016 (a 1-percent increase) putting the total just shy of $7 billion. It will decommission four old patrol boats as they are replaced by fast response cutters and one 1960s-era high endurance cutter as another national security cutter is placed in service. The Coast Guard also requested 300 additional positions to crew new cutters and aircraft, and twenty-seven to strengthen the military justice program, to include investigating sexual assault allegations and improving background investigation of employees.

Maximize Value to Nation

The $10.3 billion budget request largely maintains personnel levels in the field despite a $791 million decrease in funding from last year (minus 7-percent) and a $30 million increase from 2015 (plus .3-percent). The service says this will allow Coast Guard operators to maintain search and rescue operations; protect critical infrastructure; continue efforts to counter drugs, migrants and other threats from entering the country; maintain service to the vital maritime industry; and deploy overseas in support of combatant commanders.

In summary, Coast Guard officials note that, “The Coast Guard’s FY 2017 Budget preserves Coast Guard operations and continues recapitalization efforts for cutters, boats, aircraft, systems and infrastructure.”

Captain Ronald A. LaBrec, U.S. Coast Guard, most recently served as commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s recruiting command in Arlington, Virginia. Previous assignments include directing the office of public affairs, Washington, DC; director of training, Training Center Yorktown, Virginia; and chief of the National Search and Rescue School, Yorktown, Virginia. He has overseen Coast Guard rescue, security and law enforcement operations in several regions and served on Coast Guard and navy vessels around the world. The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

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