A service in need

The Coast Guard has long had the reputation of “doing more with less,” and has never been adept at the political maneuvering that accompanies the budgeting process. Coast Guard leaders have rarely invented new requirements, hyped-up threats, or inflated budget requests in the way the other service branches have often done. This refusal to play games or cultivate Congressional allies on key committees has meant that both sides of the aisle have long neglected the Coast Guard, whose aging fleet is now the 38th oldest of the world’s 40 largest fleets.

Yet despite this neglect, the Coast Guard plays a key role in protecting our nation. For all the political vitriol poured out over the security of our land borders in recent months, much of the smuggling of drugs, people, and weapons into and out of the U.S. happens by sea. The Senate’s recently passed immigration bill would provide more than $46 billion for border, while the Coast Guard’s entire budget for this year is under $10 billion. These imbalanced priorities persist even though the Coast Guard is solely responsible for patrolling 4 million square miles of U.S. territorial waters, larger than the entire area of the United States, while U.S. Customs and Border Protection receives help from other local, state, and federal agencies to patrol the 7,500 miles of American land borders.

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Setting aside the challenge of illegal smuggling, only 2 percent of all legal shipping containers actually get a physical inspection. While many containers are scanned by automated systems, these can easily be defeated or avoided. Hostile states and non-state actors are unlikely to attack the United States via conventional means, risking near-certain retaliation, but are much more likely to use unconventional weapons and exploit our underfunded Coast Guard and port inspection systems. These shortcomings should be unacceptable to a Congress willing to spend billions on missile defense and other forms of national security spending.

Yet despite Congressional zeal to throw money at the problem of securing the border with Mexico, the Coast Guard is still facing cuts to its budget. Despite promises to provide it with eight new cutters, Congress has not yet made available the necessary funding. And the Coast Guard needs to buy over 100 cutters over the next decade to replace other vessels, many of which are older than the people that serve on them and have already served well beyond their original service life.

The Coast Guard has been deployed and fought in every major U.S. conflict. In addition to maritime safety and security, the men and women of the Coast Guard are deployed oversees, teaching our allies in Africa and the Middle East how to do port security properly so that America’s borders and harbors are the final line of defense, not the first.

The Coast Guard cannot withstand the further cuts mandated by sequestration and be expected to effectively perform its crucial statutory missions. It is time we fully fund the Coast Guard with $15 billion a year, instead of its current budget of about $10 billion. This $5 billion in additional funds is just a fraction of the sum proposed for new land border security and will help secure our borders, harden our ports, and combat smuggling in illegal goods and people. These steps will do much to improve our national security and prove once again that the Coast Guard would be a bargain at (not quite) twice the price.

Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, he served as Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan.  Scott-Sharoni is a researcher at the Center for American Progress.

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