In March 2019, the USCGC Bertholf (WMSL-750) and the USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) sailed through the Taiwan Strait. While the strait separating China and Taiwan is international waters, China is very sensitive about the presence of U.S. military forces in the strait, as well as in the disputed South China Sea region. The transit by the Bertholf and Curtis Wilbur demonstrated the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
The importance of this freedom of navigation operation underscores the courage of our military professions. It also highlights the importance of critical federal agencies. One of those agencies is the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard has been front and center securing the nation’s ports and waterways. In a series of high-profile cases involving cruise ships with confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks, the Coast Guard decided whether to allow these ships to dock at U.S. ports and offload thousands of passengers. As stay-at-home orders took effect and the U.S. economy ground to a halt, the Coast Guard kept the global supply chain moving. With 95 percent of all U.S. goods shipped through domestic ports and waterways, the Coast Guard facilitates $5.6 trillion in U.S. trade annually.
Today, the full breadth and scope of the Coast Guard’s impact has come into focus—and so too have the service’s unmet needs.
As mission demands grow, the Coast Guard is faced with a shortage of ships to meet those requirements, in both domestic and international waters. Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Karl Schultz has been consistent in articulating his cutter recapitalization requirements. The Coast Guard’s cutter program is a series of trade-offs between buying and building new cutters and maintaining an aging fleet of older ships, some of which are more than 50 years old, increasingly obsolete, and expensive to operate.
As the Coast Guard designs its first new heavy icebreaker in 40-plus years and strives to equitably recompete its offshore patrol cutter program, the nation must find a way to fully fund a 12th national security cutter (NSC).
The NSC program represents low-risk production of a highly capable asset that is sorely needed and that also stimulates the U.S. economy. As the nation grapples with a growing unemployment crisis, now is not the time to terminate this well-established program and release highly skilled workers.
The Coast Guard’s program of record calls for only eight NSCs to replace 12 aging high-endurance cutters. But the eight NSCs requirement was based on an ambitious multicrewing concept that never materialized. As a result, Congress has funded 11 NSCs to date and last year appropriated $100 million for long lead time materials for a 12th. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard—awaiting the balance of funding from the Congress—has not moved out on that award.
A 15 April 2020 Congressional Research Service report, “Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress,” revealed the NSC recapitalization program was never sufficient to cover all the Coast Guard’s mission requirements:
The Coast Guard’s program of record for NSCs, OPCs, and FRCs includes only about 61 percent as many cutters as the Coast Guard calculated in 2011 would be needed to fully perform its projected future missions . . . planned force levels for NSCs, OPCs, and FRCs have remained unchanged since 2004. In contrast, the Navy since 2004 has adjusted its ship force-level goals multiple times in response to changing strategic and budgetary circumstances.
The idea of procuring and building additional NSCs as part of a comprehensive rethinking of the Coast Guard cutter fleet is wholly reasonable and operationally justified, as evidenced by the NSC’s unmatched ability to excel in offshore mission areas such as counterdrug operations, illegal migrant interdiction, Arctic operations, and national defense.
In congressional testimony last year, Admiral Craig Faller, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, noted: “The Coast Guard’s presence any given day is six to eight cutters. . . . But, keep in mind, we’re talking about covering areas the size of the United States—with from six to 10 ships. And so, the interdiction percentage with the current assets we have is about 6 percent of the detections. So, we need more ships.”
The NSC is an indispensable national asset. The economic impact of the NSC production line touches nearly 500 suppliers across 39 states. An additional ship order would help jumpstart the U.S. economy and have an immediate and profound effect on a host of U.S. suppliers, who stand ready to deliver. Moving forward with a 12th NSC is low risk.
It is very difficult and costly to restart shipbuilding programs. As national leaders come to terms with the reality that the defense industrial base is both critical and fragile, it must maintain the highly successful and cost-effective NSC product line.
In many ways, the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea and the current response to the COVID-19 pandemic have brought to light what really matters to the nation’s security. The safety and prosperity of the United Sates are the foremost contributions of our revered Coast Guard. Given the uncertainty of a rapidly changing world and the growing national defense requirements for cutters around the globe, it is essential that the nation continue funding the national security cutter program.