The Coast Guard Has Billions in Overdue Maintenance, and Lawmakers Are Concerned

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Crew members from the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star conduct ice rescue training
Crew members from the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB-10) conduct ice rescue training Jan. 19, 2020, about seven miles north of McMurdo Station, Antarctica. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/NyxoLyno Cangemi)

After a "dead on arrival" Coast Guard budget request last year, the president's proposed fiscal 2021 budget for the service had a better reception from lawmakers Tuesday.

However, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-California, told Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz that she is concerned the request does not include enough to tackle the service's maintenance backlog.

"It really concerns me that, despite the nearly $2 billion backlog of crumbling shore infrastructure, which you just described, 40% of which is over -- my understanding -- 50 years or older, that the president's budget request proposes deep cuts to last year's enacted level for all the lines that fund infrastructure," she said.

Congress appropriated about $12.2 billion for the Coast Guard in fiscal 2020, allocating roughly $1.8 billion for the service's procurement, construction and improvement fund. While next year's overall budget request is for a similar amount, it decreases this capital fund by about $135 million.

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Schultz assured the congresswoman he is optimistic about the progress the Coast Guard is making to address the backlog of repairs needed to the cutter piers, base facilities, training centers and military housing units.

Subcommittee members' other focus in the hearing was on efforts to replace the Coast Guard's aging fleet.

Roybal-Allard said committee staff toured a small inland cutter in Alabama that is so old, its boiler has not worked for 12 years, its engine is "obsolete" and replacement parts are no longer made. She added that lead paint contamination on this ship is so bad, the crew's lead levels are monitored.

The proposed budget would allocate $546 million for the Offshore Patrol Cutter program and another $555 million to fully fund construction of the Polar Security Cutter, which would replace the 44-year-old icebreaker Polar Star around 2024.

"I'm incredibly proud of [the Polar Star crew's] efforts, but I remain concerned that we're only one major casualty away from being a nation without any heavy icebreaking capability or capacity," Schultz said.

Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-Maryland, echoed those concerns, pushing Schultz to explain to the committee the competition the service faces in the Arctic with Russia and China.

"By 2025, arguably China will have more icebreaking capacity than the United States government, not just the Coast Guard," Schultz said, adding that the service is the "face of the nation up there" because the Navy doesn't conduct many operations in the Arctic.

Russia is interested in using the Arctic as a "toll road," Schultz said, as an alternative to ships traveling via the Suez Canal.

"I think long-ball, you know, that [there are] some areas up there where potential freedom of navigation disputes that happened today in the East and South China seas might be happening in the northern route," Schultz said.

The budget also includes more than $30 million to update the service's electronic infrastructure and $13 million for modernizing its training system and implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives -- an investment the Democratic lawmakers said they support.

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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