Nearing a 'tipping point,' Coast Guard needs lasting change

Nearing a 'tipping point,' Coast Guard needs lasting change
© SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In March, I testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee on the United States Coast Guard’s fiscal year 2020 budget — one of five budget hearings I will participate in this spring. Our service is grateful for the strong support of the administration and Congress to significantly boost our capital investment funding. This has allowed the service to recapitalize much of our surface and aviation fleets, including awarding the construction of the Polar Security Cutter, the nation’s first new heavy icebreaker in over 40 years.

However, to be the capable Coast Guard that America needs takes more than just modernized assets. On Capitol Hill and across the country, I consistently emphasize that maintaining readiness is my absolute highest priority. The cornerstone of our readiness is the dedicated men and women of the Coast Guard who define our service and are the key to our success. Our missions never have been more relevant or in higher demand than today, placing increasing demands on Coast Guardsmen without adequate funding to support them.

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Today, illicit networks, natural disasters, competing great powers and hostile adversaries do not respect borders and, in some cases, rules-based order. As challenges to our security, prosperity and global influence grow more complex, the need for a “ready, relevant, and responsive” Coast Guard never has been greater. The Coast Guard is a global force with broad authorities and unique capabilities. As the only military service located in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), we are an instrument of national power at home and abroad, providing solutions across the full spectrum of operations, from security cooperation up to armed conflict.

It is my responsibility — my moral obligation — to ensure that our extraordinary men and women have the necessary tools to excel in the face of today’s dynamic maritime threats. We require sufficient operating and support funding to support many aging platforms, as well as newer and more complex platforms; to upgrade antiquated information systems, train and equip our crews; and support our Coast Guardsmen and their families. To do so, it is time to confront longstanding Coast Guard structural budget challenges that have, and continue to, erode our readiness — so much so, that we are approaching a readiness tipping point.

Under the 2017 National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM-1) on rebuilding the U.S. Armed Forces, Department of Defense (DOD) military services received a notable uptick in operations and readiness funding — a 12 percent increase, compared to only 4 percent for the Coast Guard in fiscal year 2018. While the Coast Guard finds itself outside the focused push to restore military readiness, on closer examination, the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) creates an even more persistent challenge for the smallest of the five Armed Forces.

The BCA both reduced government spending limits and eliminated Coast Guard non-pay inflation for the increased cost of goods and services over time. In fact, our last budget to include non-pay inflation was seven years ago. When measuring buying power from 2012 to 2019, the service’s bills increased by over $300 million without receiving additional funds to compensate. Imagine the cuts you would be forced to take at home if your pay had not increased since 2012.

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This loss in purchasing power has forced the Coast Guard to make difficult tradeoffs that limit investments in workforce and asset readiness initiatives supporting our 56,000 active duty, reserve and civilian members, and frontline operations. Because of unplanned maintenance and supply shortages, we lost the operating equivalent of two major cutters and seven helicopters last year, adversely impacting mission performance. In addition, the Coast Guard has delayed shore infrastructure repairs to such a degree that we now have a $1.7 billion backlog of urgent projects. Simply put, cuts from within have hollowed Coast Guard readiness.

A less-recognized impact developed when the lower sequester spending limit took effect in 2013. The BCA originally established the two primary categories of discretionary spending as “security” and “non-security.” However, once sequestration was enacted, the categories automatically changed to “defense” and “non-defense.” This means that DHS, with a military service — the Coast Guard — in its arsenal and national security as its primary responsibility, is limited under an annual non-defense discretionary cap of roughly $49 billion and forced to compete with all other non-DOD agencies for funding. Yet, under a “security” classification, DHS would be included with DOD under budget caps that recently exceeded $600 billion.

The Coast Guard receives a portion of its annual funding from the defense category, but it pales in comparison to our contribution. Just 3 percent ($340 million) of our total budget comes from Defense, and it has not increased by a single dollar since Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) last augmented it following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. However, as I have testified before Congress, the Coast Guard currently expends about $1 billion annually in defense operations supporting DOD combatant commands across the globe.

The fix seems simple, and it is. The near-term solution is to increase the Coast Guard’s share of Defense funding — without penalizing DHS’s budget cap — to more appropriately resource us with necessary equipment, training, people and operating funds. Phased increases of $200 million per year, or 0.0003 percent of DOD’s 2019 budget, would begin to close the gap between our current Defense funding and actual Defense contributions.

The long-term solution is to recognize the Coast Guard’s crucial role in maintaining our national security and fund us as a military service. The appropriations structure should return to the “security” and “non-security” classifications, the original and arguably “just” intent of the BCA. This would ensure the Coast Guard is funded in parity within the same category as all U.S. Armed Forces and allow for consolidated oversight of all national security spending.

As I look to the future, I am optimistic the Coast Guard will remain resilient to the challenges ahead. However, to attain optimal military readiness, we need lasting change. As Congress confronts difficult choices on how to best allocate the nation’s precious resources, I confidently assert that there are few better investments in government than the United States Coast Guard. We must make a difference today for the Coast Guard of tomorrow. Our nation’s security and economic prosperity depend on it.

Adm. Karl L. Schultz is the 26th commandant of the United States Coast Guard. He previously served as the Atlantic Area commander, responsible for the operational missions spanning five Coast Guard districts and 40 states. He concurrently served as director of the Department of Homeland Security Joint Task Force-East, responsible for the DHS Southern Border and Approaches Campaign Plan throughout the Caribbean Sea and Eastern Pacific Region, including Central America.