Senators seek Deepwater acceleration

For at least the second time in less than three years, the leaders of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee have urged officials to accelerate the 22-year plan for the Coast Guard's modernization program.

In a March 17 letter to Joshua Bolten, director of the Office and Management and Budget, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) called for a 10-year timetable that the legislators say would save about $4 billion. Collins is the committee chairwoman, and Lieberman is the group's ranking Democrat.

Fiscal 2006 budget documents indicate the service's modernization program would get $966 million, or $242 million more than the amount approved for fiscal 2005. Deepwater projects include enhancing communications equipment, sensors and logistics systems.

Coast Guard officials recently told Congress that the service needs an additional $650 million for modernization, and $60 million more for maintaining existing cutters and aircraft.

The modernization project, also known as the Integrated Deepwater System, has been extended to 22 years from the original 20, and some estimates put the timeline up to 27 years, according to the letter from Collins and Lieberman.

Members of the Coast Guard are already feeling the effects of running a fleet that is the third-oldest in the world. In fiscal 2004, 329 in-flight power losses occurred on Coast Guard search and rescue helicopters, more than five times the 2003 number. For fiscal 2006, twenty-five percent of the Administration’s proposed Deepwater budget would go towards sustaining old cutters, boats and aircraft.

“The longer the Deepwater project takes to complete, the more money the Coast Guard will have to divert to maintenance of its decaying assets, and the higher the overall price tag will be in the end,” the letter states.

President Bush's fiscal 2006 budget includes $6.9 billion in discretionary funding for the Coast Guard, an 11.4-percent increase over the comparable 2005 level. Since 2001, the Coast Guard's discretionary budget has increased more than 85 percent.

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