The Coast Guard could be facing an even greater personnel shortage than current estimates suggest, testimony during a House hearing Tuesday revealed, but data and workplace assessment failures mean the exact number is unknown.
Lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee suggested during the hearing that the Coast Guard was facing a 3,000-person shortfall. But according to the Government Accountability Office, it's likely thousands more because the Coast Guard has yet to conduct an entire branchwide manpower assessment.
"The Coast Guard estimates that it is short thousands of service members. Without workforce assessments, it does not know the true magnitude of the shortfall and which units or missions are most effective," Heather Macleod, the director of GAO's Homeland Security and Justice team, told the committee. Just 15% of workplace assessments have been completed for units across the service.
A May report from the GAO suggested the Coast Guard is therefore closer to around 4,800 members short, marking the fourth consecutive fiscal year the branch has missed its recruiting goals.
The Coast Guard isn't alone in its personnel woes. Across the military branches, only the Marine Corps and the Space Force met their enlisted recruiting goals for 2023. The Army, Air Force and Navy, fell short. Every service -- excluding the Marine Corps -- missed some element of its target numbers, whether in reserve, National Guard or officer goals.
Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., said budgetary concerns are largely to blame, and Coast Guard leadership was admonished during the hearing for not advocating better for funding.
"While the underlying recruiting and retention problems have been exacerbated by larger workforce trends and our declining interest in military service, chronic underfunding is a major factor," Carbajal said.
The Coast Guard's requested budget for fiscal 2024 was around $13.45 billion, including $12.05 billion to be spent at the discretion of the branch. Upgrades are being made to both the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, and Training Center Cape May in New Jersey as an approach to making sure the outward face of the branch is attractive to potential recruits and officer candidates, but Rear Adm. Jo-Ann Burdian, the assistant commandant for response policy, said the branch still needs more.
"I think to be the Coast Guard of the future, by 2033, we would offer that we need to be a $20 billion Coast Guard," Burdian said.
Shortages in Coast Guard personnel are particularly concerning as the demand for maritime interdiction missions have exploded over the last few years. The branch has three main law enforcement interdiction missions, including migration, drug and unregulated fishing.
In each of the last two fiscal years, the Coast Guard has interdicted more than 12,000 migrants attempting to cross the maritime border into the U.S., with a high concentration occurring near the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Meanwhile, the branch has failed to meet its goal of interdicting 10% of the known cocaine flow for the last three years, despite having interdicted more than 800 metric tons of cocaine over the last five years, 130 of which were intercepted in 2022 alone.
The failure to address the personnel shortage and the ensuing degradation of mission capabilities will only continue to affect the branch's readiness, Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass., said.
"It's just the reality of, you don't have enough people," he said.
-- Rachel Nostrant is a freelance reporter and Marine veteran. She has previously worked for Military Times, Reuters and others, covering the war in Ukraine and U.S. national affairs. She is on X @rachelnostrant.