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CG commandant talks budget, readiness and retention

Nov. 15, 2013 - 05:59PM   |  
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Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp said in a recent TV interview that the service's budget is nearing the point where cuts to manning or missions must be considered. (Screen grab courtesy of This Week in Defense News)

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It’s been 4½ years since Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp took the helm of the service, and each year, he said, he’s declared it the service’s worst budget year yet.

This year is no different.

Papp discussed how the service would deal with its shrinking cash allowance — what cuts could be coming, what missions could change and where Coasties could feel the financial pinch in their daily duties — during an interview for “This Week in Defense News with Vago Muradian.” Some highlights:

'Worst year yet'

This year’s sequestration cuts and government shutdown put yet more pressure on Coast Guardsmen to carry out missions on a tight budget.

“I’ve been right every year. Each year has gotten worse,” Papp said of the budget. “It makes it very difficult to plan, to train, to keep people motivated and prepared to go out and do very dangerous things.”

Papp said that his service needs about $2 billion a year to continue carrying out missions and maintain an economical ordering quantity for its acquisition projects, but that he’s been making do with $1.3 billion the past several years.

“If we start going below $1.3 billion, I have to start cutting programs, and that’s the situation that I find myself in,” he said.

Maintaining the force

Despite the threat of deeper cuts, Papp said he’s committed to keeping the Coast Guard at its current size. The service has worked its way back up to 42,000 uniformed personnel, Papp said, up from 36,000 following cuts in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Because Papp wants to “hold on to as many people as possible,” he said, cuts would have to come from somewhere else — but that strategy won’t last forever.

“So when you try to balance the recapitalization, construction projects, keep your people, keep them happy, keep them trained and then spend money on operations, at a certain point, you get to that tipping point where you have no other alternative other than to start cutting people or start cutting projects,” he said. “And I think we’re at that point now.”

'Last in, first out'

So, if he had to cut something, where would he start?

“An easy thing would be to say, ‘Last in, first out.’ ” Papp said. “We have a large icebreaker program that has been introduced now to build a new polar icebreaker. That was the last one in; that would cost, at the high side, $1 billion to build that icebreaker.”

It would be the third in the Coast Guard’s active polar fleet, designed to break up polar ice while patrolling the Arctic.

Leasing such ships from another agency or private entity wouldn’t solve the service’s problems, Papp said.

“Looking at the way that we train, we equip, and the proviso, the dependability that we need, we need to own that icebreaker so that we can use it for all United States sovereign interests,” he said.

And, he added, leasing takes money from the budget.

“At the end of that lease, you own nothing, and you’ve spent a lot of money,” he said. “I’d rather own that icebreaker.”

Mission control

There was also a suggestion that the Coast Guard pare its mission load. Each year, the Department of Homeland Security evaluates the service on its 23 statutory missions — the recently released 2012 report found that the service met only 11 of its goals, with a 27 percent grade for overall readiness.

According to the report, much of that readiness gap comes from the aging cutter fleet. Papp said that once the national security cutter fleet is complete — four of eight planned ships have been christened so far — he can get to work on 25 new offshore patrol cutters to replace the 33 aging medium endurance cutters in service.

Some have suggested doing away with aids to navigation, Papp said, including buoy and lighting maintenance to guide mariners. However, he said, money allocated to that mission wouldn’t go to other Coast Guard missions — it would simply be recycled into the federal budget, likely for private contractors to maintain those aids.

As the Coast Guard’s missions are assigned by law, Papp said, it would take legislation to adjust them. For now, his options are limited.

“What I can do is reduce the level of effort in each one of those mission areas until someone tells me I don’t have to do a mission anymore,” he said.

Despite the constraints, Papp said, he’s confident the Coast Guard will find a way to make it all work.

“I tend to be a very optimistic guy. ... I know what this service needs, and so far we’ve been successful and we’ll continue pressing ahead,” he said.

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