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Oil Spill Reveals Coasties Budget Woes

The Coast Guard's plans to cut 1,100 uniformed personnel in 2011 and reduce some of its missions at a time it must respond to an enormous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico certainly highlight the stark choices Coasties face over the next few years. Meanwhile, the Navy is moving into the littoral and increasing its focus on anti-drug and anti-piracy operations, raising questions about just what the Coastie's future roles and missions will be. Robbin Laird, a defense consultant who has been working on Coast Guard issues, penned the following commentary about the Coast Guard and its future.

The Coast Guard is being starved of resources just when the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico seems to demonstrate again just how important the service’s expertise is in responding to such events.

The Obama administration is not fully funding for catastrophic spill equipment for the Coast Guard. And with elimination of the Coast Guard’s national strike fleet coordination center at Elizabeth City, North Carolina next year, the nation will lose a vital organization that manages all Coast Guard responses, and is also the key player for inter-agency coordination and leadership of scores of state and local, commercial and NGO responders.

Those groups play vital roles in preventing and responding to spills. Success requires the authorities possessed by the Coast Guard, highly competent people to run it and adequate equipment. The Coast Guard is the only maritime organization that can do these jobs on the vital waterways of our country and it does not have enough assets to do the job in the Gulf of Mexico, where a BP oil rig exploded last week, killing 11 and creating an enormous oil spill that threatens the Gulf Coast.

As a senior Coast Guard official commented in a New Orleans interview 10 days before the explosion that “we have not enough inspectors and inadequate numbers of ships and helos to secure the emerging deep water oil enterprise being built off of the Gulf Coast. This enterprise will be further and deeper than the current offshore oil drilling. These facilitates will not only drill oil, but will process oil at sea. We must go further than we normally do to regulate and work with the private sector in this area.”

The Coast Guard has worked within its limits to deal with the crisis. The Department of Homeland Security’s leadership has not responded to the crisis by trying to get the USCG more deployed assets. Instead, the Administration has deployed Navy assets and has scurried to find private inspectors they can hire on a temporary basis to deal with the crisis.

Does this presage a new focus for the Navy and the curtailing of the Coast Guard’s traditional role? Senior Navy officials have been emphasizing over the past few months their enhanced role in littoral operations. As one senior Admiral commented, “We see irregular warfare as subsuming a wide range of normal littoral activities for the USN, including fisheries issues, illegal immigration, and environmental degradation.”

And a senior official involved with the LCS acquisition has noted that, “we see LCS as the spearhead of a whole range of expanding USN activities. As we shift from dealing with high-end operations as the norm to a more balanced view of our operations, littoral presence over the spectrum of low end operations will become increasingly important to us, and with this operation greater cooperation with global maritime authorities and coast guards.”

All this comes when the Navy is scrambling for adequate resources to play the “away game”. Wouldn’t it make more sense to fully source the Coast Guard to play these “home games” where they have highly developed skills complemented by a broad range of authorities that are not available to Pentagon organizations? Further, the Coast Guard has developed working agreements and relationships with scores of other organizations that are needed for success. DOD agencies lack the authorities and years of experience to engender the vital partnerships.

All of this could mean that the Navy will expand significantly into the traditional USCG issue areas, and with this expansion curtail any effort to expand Coast Guard acquisition dollars.

Robbin Laird is an international defense consultant and co-founder of, which focuses on logistics, sustainment and concepts of operations, and has significant coverage of the Coast Guard.

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