Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Port Security and the US Coast Guard: Are We Really Trying?

USCG Image via WikipediaA few years back, in my debate coaching days, my kids had a topic that focused on preservation of marine natural resources. One issue that kept coming up in debate rounds was whether or not the US Coast Guard had the resources to effectively protect the environment and our ports, both of which are included in its duties.

Over the course of helping my students with their research during that debate season, I developed an increased appreciation for the Coast Guard and its ability to, as its unofficial motto states, “do more with less.”

Since the Coast Guard holds primary responsibility for port security, it seems that we should be ensuring that it has everything it needs to protect our ports, much less stay afloat. At the time (2003-2004 school year) the USCG was still badly underfunded. So I decided to see if much had changed. While researching my last post, I found a claim that the USCG apparently ranks 38th oldest among the world’s 40 largest navies. I wondered if that was true and if so what is being done to change that. It seems that funding has gone up, but there is still quite a bit of work to be done.

I found an article on USA Today that contained some disconcerting information about the state of the US Coast Guard. The article, “Coast Guard plagued by breakdowns” (7-7-05) lists the following about the Coast Guard’s aging fleet:

  • In fiscal 2004, the engines on the Coast Guard’s 95 HH 65 helicopters suffered power losses at a rate of 329 per 100,000 flight hours, up from 63 per 100,000 flight hours in fiscal 2003. The comparable Federal Aviation Administration standard is 1 per 100,000 flight hours.
  • There have been 23 hull breaches — holes that let in water — requiring emergency dry-dock repairs in the 49 110- and 123-foot patrol boats since 2001.
  • Each of the dozen 378-foot cutters, most of which operate in the Pacific, suffers a significant engine or hydraulic or refrigeration system breakdown on every patrol.
  • For all major cutters and patrol boats, the number of unscheduled maintenance days was 742 in fiscal 2004, up from 267 in fiscal 1999. The loss of cutter days in fiscal 2004 equated to losing 10% of the major fleet for an entire year.

This is all quite disturbing considering that the USCG of all the services is the one most responsible for protecting our ports, which are arguably the greatest weakness in our homeland security program.

The article cites one former Coast Guard officer who claims the USCG is operating at the level of a third world navy.

USA Today ran a related article called “Sailing far from smooth on Coast Guard’s Decisive” (7/5/05) that further outlines the problems facing the Coast Guard and lists estimated maintenance costs for the Coast Guard’s fleet.

Looking into issues relating to the Coast Guard’s budget, it seems there is to be an increase from 8.1 billion to 8.4 billion. I don’t really know if that’s a lot of money (for fleet maintenence – it would be a lot for me) or not, but Senator Olympia Snow of Maine who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries and the Coast Guard had this to say about some of the specifics:

I am pleased that President Bush’s budget request contains an increase in funding for the Coast Guard. However, the President’s request for the Deepwater program, which will provide the Coast Guard with the ships and aircraft it needs to complete its many crucial missions, falls short of a funding level that would enable accelerating the program. The strain of the Coast Guard’s rapid operational escalation has fallen on the backs of its 42,000 men and women who faithfully serve our country. It has also taken a significant toll on the ships, boats, and aircraft that the Coast Guard uses on a daily basis, forcing them to do more with less. We must do all we can to shift this burden off our people and instead provide the Coast Guard with the necessary tools – and Deepwater accomplishes that goal.”

The President’s 2007 Coast Guard Budget Request is $8.2 billion, a four percent increase over the FY2006 enacted budget of $8.04 billion. The administration’s Deepwater (the Coast Guard’s recapitalization and modernization program) request is $934.4 million, just $1 million more than last year’s appropriation.

While it’s good that Coast Guard funding is increasing, albeit slightly, perhaps we should be asking why there isn’t a movement to step up the CG’s modernization program. Perhaps leaving the Coast Guard with antiquated tools is yet another cost of the war in Iraq? With all the hubub about the UAE ports deal, I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t missing the boat here. (Ouch – I couldn’t resist)


  1. James

    “Dream Ships” is a sailors dream. You must have been a mariner in a former life……It is representative of what some of our ports are going to look like it we don’t stand up and pay attention soon.


  2. I never thought of “Dream Ships” that way. I grew up on Navy bases and I love being by the ocean, but I’ve never been on it really. Except perhaps as you say in a former life.

  3. I am sure dreams like yours are subject to many interpretations. Was your dad in the Navy?

    I really don’t mean to sound caustic or paranoid about the port situation but I do feel strongly about it. The Houston Ship Channel is a good example of how vulnerable we are. It is a stretch of about 40 miles (give or take) of highly accessible water. It and the ship plying its waters can be reached by car or water. The 610 bridge goes over the channel very near oil and chemical refineries. It is wide open for attack by shoulder held rockets or ever car bombs. There are people living in Pasadena and Galena park and other towns along the banks of the channel. This is just one port. In Miami if a bomb were to go off on a container ship near the cruise terminals it would be catastrophic. I am not sure if many in the government appreciate the risk. I hope so.


  4. You are right on about the Houston Ship Channel. My in-laws live within walking distance of several major chemical plants and refineries on the Texas coast. That whole area is an incident waiting to happen. Texas Monthly did a very good feature a year or two ago about the possibility on a Terrorist attack along the Texas coast. I think about it every time we drive down to visit. The whole area is so vulnerable. Truly frightening and I share you skepticism about how this is so underappreciated. I don’t think this topic is very sexy politically.

    You are correct, my dad was in the Navy. He’s retired now, but he was in JAG and his specialty was maritime law. I should tell him to take a look at your blog, because I believe that is what you do as well. (Dad, go look at Dwayne’s blog)

  5. Yes, we are maritime lawyers. We really get some intersting cases in this business. I bet your dad saw his share. Thank him for his service too.


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