White House officials pressured the Coast Guard commandant to tone down comments that his service faces serious threats to its ability to respond to emergencies such as the Haitian earthquake disaster, DoD Buzz has learned.
A source with close ties to the Coast Guard told us this morning that the "White House hammered Allen" once they saw a draft of his final State of the Coast Guard speech. Basically, he was told, you've got your budget now get out there and defend it.
The Coast Guard sailed right into Haiti after the earthquake. Their High Endurance Cutters --average age close to 41 years -- were the prime assets the Coasties relied on to get people and equipment to Haiti. They made it there, but as Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen has made clear, the HECs are tired and limping after their latest deployment.
Allen's proof: 10 of the 12 cutters had to head into port for serious repair work as a result of their latest deployment. Adm. Allen offered that number during his State of Coast Guard speech on Friday afternoon.
In a Jan. 19 message to his command, Allen described the Coast Guard's rapid response to the disaster: "The next morning, Haitians witnessed President Obama's pledge - "You will not be forsaken and you will not be forgotten" - become reality when the cutter FORWARD arrived with the rising sun as the first American asset on-scene. Amidst the devastation, FORWARD delivered damage assessments, critical command and control capabilities, and most importantly - hope."
After his speech, Allen talked with reporters and I asked him if the Coast Guard might not able to deploy the next time it faces a serious global disaster like the earthquake or a tsunami. He said it's possible that might be the case. Obviously, his response was carefully calibrated to keep the White House off his back while offering the most honest answer he could muster knowing that his forces are close to crippled.
Think of the implications: the nation's first responder to major nautical and coastal disasters, the fleet that watches the Caribbean and Atlantic for drug smugglers is limping along, one rusted hull, one fire away from being knocked out of commission permanently.
Our source close to the Coast Guard noted that the Coast Guard cutter Dallas -- which transited the Panama Canal from the Pacific to get to Haiti -- and three of her sister ships are on the decommissioning list for the 2011 budget. So when the next crisis hits, our nation may well be left without one-third of her Coast Guard blue water fleet. Not to mention the other three or four ships that my need serious repairs if they deploy.
On top of all that, there is the strategic threat to our ability to maintain an Arctic presence. Allen noted after his speech at the National Press Club that our two nuclear ice-breakers have about seven years of operational life left, the same amount of time it will probably take to build replacements. [Eds. note -- Only Russia has nuke ice breakers. My mistake. CSC]
"We have a looming crisis and that's the condition of our Arctic icebreakers," Allen said. But the Coast Guard can't budget any money until the White House decides just what our Arctic policy will be in the face of increasingly open waters in the far north. "That policy discussion cannot happen soon enough," Allen said, clearly hoping to move things along at a slightly less than glacial pace.
On top of the Arctic policy woes, the country has not yet budgeted for one of the ice breakers. The estimated cost: a very substantial $1 billion. That is not the kind of money one scrapes together at the last minute, especially for a service already facing what analysts like to call "a constrained budget environment."