Appropriators frustrated with Coast Guard on Deepwater data

The U.S. Coast Guard has failed to deliver a revised plan for the multibillion-dollar modernization of its fleet of ships, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, as requested repeatedly by Congress.

Complaining about the service’s failure to present decisive information, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said, “I cannot and will not allow the Coast Guard to mortgage its future without proper planning and clear, transparent budgeting.”

For three years, Rogers has been asking the Coast Guard to provide his panel with new details of its Integrated Deepwater Systems program, a subcommittee aide told The Hill.

Rogers pushed through legislation last year requiring the Coast Guard to submit the revised plan to Congress for oversight. It arrived in late May, long after the appropriations process had begun. Even then, it offered four different choices rather than a definitive plan.

To rap the Coast Guard over the knuckles, the House slashed the Deepwater 2006 budget by nearly half, $466 million, leaving it at just $500 million. That number took no account of the service’s increased responsibilities since Sept. 11, 2001.

Funding could be restored later this summer in conference with the Senate, depending on what the Coast Guard includes in its final plan, whittled down from the four-choice version delivered in May.

There is intense frustration on Rogers’s subcommittee because, members say, they are fully supportive of the Coast Guard and yet the service has sought to press its case outside Congress in the media and elsewhere, said the aide.

“You will not find a greater source of support for your work than this subcommittee,” Rogers told Adm. Thomas Collins, commandant of the Coast Guard, and Rear Adm. Patrick Stillman, the Deepwater executive officer, at a panel hearing yesterday.

The Coast Guard’s four funding scenarios ranged in cost from $19 billion to $24 billion and a timeframe between 20 and 25 years. Each included a different mix of assets — national-security cutters, fast-response cutters and maritime patrol aircraft.

Rogers called that a “haphazard approach to planning” and asked, “On which one of these four paths are we going to go?”

Rogers said fiscal 2006 is critical to the program. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who attended the hearing, said, “These are difficult times. … I hope you recognize the priority [the plan] needs to be given.”

The Deepwater program goes back to 1996, but the post-Sept. 11 environment dictates new kinds of operations for the service, which traditionally lagged behind the other four military services in funding and modern equipment.

The aging inventory of patrol boats, aircraft, helicopters, cutters and systems has generated growing concerns over the Coast Guard’s ability to perform all of its assigned missions effectively and safely.

The Coast Guard, now part of the Department of Homeland Security, supports military operations overseas while carrying on with its domestic coastal policing.

An $11 billion contract for Deepwater was awarded in 2002 to a Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman team, which is slated to manage 100 companies from 32 states as well as international partners to carry out the modernization program.

Stillman defended the decision to present four plans by explaining that Deepwater is based on performance. “It would be inappropriate to project what assets we may need [20 years] down the road,” he said, “The intent was to fuse performance with fiscal reality.”

But lawmakers have disagreed. “You are asking us to decide which plan to fund,” Rogers said. The subcommittee and Coast Guard officials scheduled another hearing for July 21, when the service is expected to present a single, revised plan.