A wave of goodwill could lift Coast Guard program's outlook

The U.S. Coast Guard’s swift response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is increasing its stature and political capital in Congress at a critical time for the service. In recent months, the Coast Guard has been pushing for more money for Integrated Deepwater Systems, a long-term program to replace its operational assets, and the positive new exposure may give the request a much-needed boost.

The House this week will consider the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act, which would authorize $1.3 billion for Deepwater. But the appropriations committees, which actually fund the service, have yet to work out their differences over funding the program.

Late last week, President Bush moved Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown off the front lines of Gulf Coast hurricane response and installed Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen in his place. Yesterday, Brown announced his resignation as director of the agency.

Bush’s decision to tap Allen demonstrated the administration’s confidence in the service, but the increased hours of operation and the wear and tear on the Coast Guard’s helicopters and boats in the Gulf also could exacerbate the service’s years-long struggle with old equipment.

“The Coast Guard’s performance in the terrible devastation that occurred illustrates not only the competence and the courage, but it also reminds us that too often we have taken the Coast Guard for granted,” said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee’s Economic Security, Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity Subcommittee.

The Coast Guard, which has been folded into the Department of Homeland Security and is now the largest agency in the department, traditionally was lagging behind the other four military services when it comes to updating its boats, helicopters and other equipment.

“We have paid attention to other services but have left the Coast Guard out,” Lungren told The Hill.

Lungren, a former California attorney general, explained that the Coast Guard is a unique organization combining both civilian and military aspects.

“At some time in the future, you will see a recognition in the Congress of the unique contribution that can be made by the Coast Guard and that they would benefit from an upgrade and modernization of much of their equipment,” said Lungren, who is vying for the gavel of the Homeland Security Committee.

To gain that recognition, the service also has to roll up its sleeves and increase its presence on Capitol Hill.

“The Coast Guard needs to improve its advocacy efforts with the Hill,” said Andre Hollis, a lobbyist who heads up Van Scoyoc’s homeland-security practice.

“The reason … the National Guard is so powerful is because they work closely with the Hill. They create champions. The Coast Guard has not done that as effectively,” Hollis added.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Coast Guard has demonstrated its capabilities “exceptionally well,” said David Olive, co-founder of Olive, Edwards & Brinkmann.

“There is universal praise, and that will go a long way when it comes down to members of Congress.”

However, before the August recess, the Coast Guard’s effort to increase funding for Deepwater was entering some choppy waters.

Deepwater, which was hatched in 1996, is a multibillion-dollar effort to modernize the service’s fleet of ships, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

An $11 billion contract was awarded in 2002 to a Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman team, which is slated to manage 100 U.S. companies as well as international partners.

But the program has run into delays and criticism in the House. Complaints also have come from industry; contractors want a predictable budget from year to year and bristled at the service’s 2006 request.

Lawmakers complained that the Coast Guard had not presented enough decisive information about approaching the Deepwater program, and the House slashed the 2006 Deepwater funding by $466 million, leaving it at just $500 million. The Senate version puts the funding at $906 million, closer to the president’s budget request of $966 million.

“We are consumed with the [fiscal year] 2006 budget, which is on the Hill now,” said Vice Adm. Terry Cross, the Coast Guard’s vice commander, at a military conference last week.

House and Senate appropriators still have to meet in conference to decide on the Coast Guard’s 2006 funding level.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, pushed through legislation last year requiring the Coast Guard to submit a revised Deepwater plan to Congress.

The Coast Guard offered four alternatives instead of one and was again forced to revisit its approach and present one definitive plan.

Cross said the service since has submitted its plan.

“We are hopeful that we are going to get a mark [in conference] closer to the Senate mark rather than the House mark,” Cross said.

Rogers’s office did not return repeated phone calls by press time.

When the House considers the postponed Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2005 this week, as expected, it will include some “tweaks” relevant to the Katrina disaster response, according to a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staff member.

The bill would authorize $1.3 billion for acquisition and construction of shore and offshore facilities, vessels and aircraft, including equipment and other activities that make up the Deepwater program.

So far, the program gradually has introduced new equipment, with a completion date of 2030. Until then, the service will still have to contend with some failing equipment.

The Coast Guard already has two cutters 60 years old or older and most cutters are older than 20 years, according to Cross.

“They are not only old but we have problems,” he said. The service lost 600 ship-days, the equivalent of four ships, to unscheduled maintenance, he explained.

And the service’s helicopters, some of which are being used in the Katrina relief effort, have been experiencing engine malfunctions. But the service has been able to use a couple helicopters that have received new engines as part of the modernization program and, as a result, have more endurance and were able to pick up more stranded people.

A 270-foot cutter with updated command and control functions, another part of the Deepwater upgrades, was able to provide on-scene communications in the disaster area, according to a Deepwater program spokesperson.

The Coast Guard is hoping these examples will show that the Deepwater investments are worthwhile, the spokesperson said.

Still, the intense operations in the Gulf are cause for concern.

“Helicopters are programmed to operate 650 hours per year, and now they are flying a lot more,” said retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Edward Gilbert, who now runs Gilbert & Associates Inc., a consulting firm in Arlington, Va.

“They are certainly stressing their equipment and burning funding to operate at a much faster rate,” he added. “This is an overwhelming effort. If [the equipment] is already old and tired, it makes it worse.”

So far, the Coast Guard has a budget upwards of $80 million for its mission assignments in the Gulf, according to Cmdr. Brendan McPherson, a Coast Guard spokesman. That money will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he added.

While the service has been quick to respond to the crisis left behind by Katrina, it will also have to work to put its own pieces together. One of the service’s stations in Gulfport, Miss., was destroyed, and several others on the coast have varying degrees of damage. At least 70 members of the Coast Guard have lost their homes.