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Helvarg: Obama and the Coast Guard — A Tale of Two Ships

Still, in Congressional testimony on Feb. 15, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the administration’s defunding of the last two NSC Coast Guard Cutters, arguing, “We will look at seven and eight in light of what the Navy is doing. … We need to look at what the Department of Defense is doing with respect to their own force to see what we need to be putting in the acquisition pipeline.”

In other words, we may not need new fire department ambulances because the police are getting a new fleet of patrol cars.

The administration’s 2013 budget also calls for decommissioning two of the Coast Guard’s nine remaining High Endurance Cutters. At the same time, the service is years behind in replacing its rusting, broken-down 210- and 270-foot Medium Endurance Cutters, some more than 45 years old.

Its polar icebreaking fleet that included five ships only 30 years ago is down to one, with a second, built in 1976, being retrofitted for renewed service as rapidly changing conditions in the Arctic drive new activities, including shipping and oil-drilling that the Coast Guard is expected to oversee and protect.

Whatever one thinks of the utility of the Navy’s new littoral warships, they should not be used as an excuse to downsize the Coast Guard. In an increasingly crowded world where an unknowable range of maritime threats face us — not only hostile navies but intentional, industrial and natural disasters — it’s crazy to risk crippling the Coast Guard while expecting it to continue providing us safety, security and environmental stewardship at sea. Yet that is what the president’s 2013 budget does.

David Helvarg is executive director of the Blue Frontier Campaign, an ocean conservation and policy group, and author of “Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes.”

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