Coast Guard pressed to accelerate Deepwater

The Coast Guard could complete a project to upgrade its aging fleet in 10 years — chopping its implementation time in half — but only if it gets more money, officials say.

The likelihood of that happening remains uncertain, but several senators have called for additional support for the Integrated Deepwater System.

Reports released last week by the Coast Guard and the General Accounting Office paint a bleak picture of the agency's equipment and future ability to carry out its missions — not a new revelation, but one that becomes more serious with each passing year, especially given the growing focus on homeland security.

"We use our fleet and our aircraft to the maximum," Adm. Thomas Collins, the Coast Guard's commandant, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Oceans, Atmosphere and Fisheries Subcommittee March 12. "But these assets are getting old."

Collins brought along a corroded piece of a patrol boat to illustrate his point.

"This is what I was worried about when we got the request to transfer your agency to the Department of Homeland Security," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Ark.).

The Coast Guard joined the new department March 1. In the Bush administration's budget request for fiscal 2004, a chunk of the agency's money is tied to homeland security initiatives, while funding for older projects, such as Deepwater, stays steady — a cause for concern on Capitol Hill.

"Our nation's ports and waterways remain dangerously vulnerable to attack," wrote Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) in a March 12 letter to the Senate Budget Committee. "We understand the difficulties you face in preparing a budget during these challenging economic times but believe that modernizing the Coast Guard fleet must be a top priority."

Coast Guard officials see Deepwater and homeland security as intertwined. "Terrorist threats to America's homeland are significantly more complex and challenging than at any other time in our history," officials wrote in the Coast Guard report. The program "is urgently needed to transform [the agency's] operational capabilities and performance vital to homeland security while safeguarding its multiple other missions."

Coast Guard officials awarded the Deepwater contract — worth up to $17 billion — in June 2002 to a joint venture established by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp., assuming the program would receive annual funding of $500 million based on 1998 dollars. But appropriations have fallen well below that estimate, according to GAO.

With a $4 billion boost in the near future, however, the Coast Guard could accelerate Deepwater, according to its report. That investment could pay for itself through increased capabilities and reduced maintenance fees, officials said.

To pick up the pace of the program, the agency would also need to temporarily beef up its workforce to meet training and crew requirements. Officials said they would prefer to outsource those jobs.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who requested the report, is working with the Coast Guard to speed up the modernization, but said getting more money represents a major challenge.

"The Coast Guard is the redheaded stepchild of the armed services," said Patrick Garrett, an associate analyst at GlobalSecurity.org. Agency officials have approached appropriations "as softly as they could."

That attitude is the main reason Deepwater was drawn out, he said, adding that "they could probably have this sped up very significantly with very little impact."

Others agreed that money is the main issue. "The Coast Guard has been underfunded for some time," said Mike Scardaville, homeland security analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

But, some noted, the agency could be getting ahead of itself. "There's no doubt [more money] would have a positive effect, but the first task would be to get it funded at the minimum," said JayEtta Hecker, GAO's physical infrastructure director.

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A need for speed

The Integrated Deepwater System will replace the Coast Guard's aging fleet with new surface ships, aircraft, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles. It will turn those assets into an interoperable, network-centric system with command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

The agency plans to have Deepwater completed in 20 years, but said in a recent report that it could get the job done in half the time.

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