Chairman Webster Statement from Hearing on the Recapitalization and Modernization of Coast Guard Assets
Opening remarks, as prepared, of Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Webster (R-FL) from today’s hearing, entitled “Review of the Recapitalization of the United States Coast Guard Surface, Air, IT, and Shoreside Assets”:
Before we begin discussion of the hearing topic at hand, I want to commend the Coast Guard for undertaking Operation Fouled Anchor, an investigation of sexual assault and harassment incidents at the Coast Guard Academy from the late 1980’s through the early 2000’s. As a grandfather of 13 granddaughters, I was horrified by the report, and the Service must use the data gleaned from this review to better protect future cadets.
However, like many of my colleagues, I urge the Coast Guard to share important Service oversight actions with Congress as a routine matter of day-to-day operations, rather than being forced to do so by impending press coverage.
Turning now to our hearing topic, today our subcommittee will receive testimony on the Coast Guard’s efforts to recapitalize its surface, air, IT, and shoreside assets. I’d like to welcome our witnesses – Vice Admiral Paul Thomas, Deputy Commandant of the Coast Guard for Mission Support, and Marie Mak, Director of Contracting and National Security at the United States Government Accountability Office.
Ms. Mak, I understand that you will be retiring at the end of next month, and this will be the last of many Congressional hearings at which you have testified for GAO. On behalf of the Subcommittee, I would like to thank you for your contributions over the last decade to the Subcommittee’s ongoing oversight of Coast Guard acquisition programs. In the spirit of today’s hearing, we all wish you fair winds and following seas as you embark on your next chapter.
The Coast Guard is in the middle of a multi-decade recapitalization campaign to replace its aging surface and air assets. There have been many successes in this effort. The Coast Guard is nearing completion of the 11-ship BERTHOLF class National Security Cutters, and the, at present, 64-ship WEBBER class Fast Response Cutters.
The Coast Guard has acquired 15 C-130J long range aircraft, 18 C-144, and 14 C-27 medium range aircraft, and reengined the MH-65 rotary wing aircraft. The Service has also made significant investments in the shoreside facilities necessary to homeport these new assets, but many additional homeport and hangar upgrades are needed.
Unfortunately, no administration of either party has requested anything even approaching the resources necessary to carry out this recapitalization in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Congress has provided more resources than those requested by multiple administrations, but Congress was only able to go so far beyond the requested levels. These paltry budgets dramatically stretch out timelines for these programs. The Coast Guard says, “The timeline has moved to the right,” almost as often as it says “Semper paratus.”
Program delays always raise program costs. They delay implementation of the next-in-line programs. These delays also reduce the Coast Guard’s mission capability as legacy assets degrade. In addition, older assets require greater maintenance and repair, and costs increase.
Delays prevent the Service from maintaining its shoreside assets, and they prevent the Coast Guard from meaningfully participating in the ongoing digital revolution. Throughout this long saga, made longer by severely constrained budgets, world and domestic events, new and evolving Congressional and Executive Branch policy priorities, and rapidly changing maritime technology have all contributed to expanding the scope and requirements of Coast Guard mission responsibilities.
In short, we expect the Coast Guard to do more without giving them the resources to carry out their existing programs. This committee has consistently produced bills that authorized the amounts we believe are the minimum necessary to keep the Service from falling behind. However, appropriations and administration budget requests then leave the Coast Guard at the dock, allowing mission capability creep downward while increasing maintenance and construction backlogs.
Nonetheless, this subcommittee will continue to authorize the Procurement, Construction and Improvement Account at levels that would at least keep the Coast Guard from losing more ground. This is not to say that the Coast Guard doesn’t have acquisitions problems of its own making. In the future, the Committee hopes the Coast Guard will use proven parent craft designs, and design first, then build.
The Subcommittee looks forward to hearing today how the Coast Guard will upgrade and replace its aging shoreside infrastructure and antiquated IT systems, build its largest, most expensive single class of ships, and replace its rapidly aging H-65s over the next 15 years.
While the Coast Guard must be commended for squeezing the most out of its current assets, we owe the men and women of the Coast Guard – from whom we expect so much and always get even more – the adequate tools and resources to do their jobs effectively and safely. Efforts to secure new Polar Security Cutters and Offshore Patrol Cutters are still in relatively early stages. And work is also underway to replace the Service’s inland tender fleet.
The Committee looks forward to learning how these programs are going to be completed.
We are particularly interested in whether the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget support building two Offshore Patrol Cutters each year. Without a two-a-year strategy, which the Coast Guard has long advocated, current Medium Endurance Cutters will age out before replacements are available.
Additionally, unless Polar Security Cutters come online by 2028, the United States polar region presence will be maintained by the then nearly 30-year-old HEALEY, a research icebreaker. Russia and China, not even an Arctic Nation, will both have a significant polar operational presence by then. We should not expect academic fishery biologists and physical oceanographers, however talented they may be, to be the first line of United States sovereignty in the Arctic.
A new fleet of Polar Security Cutters is critical to advancing our Nation’s sovereignty in the polar regions. The program is half a decade behind its unrealistic original schedule. I am optimistic that new leadership at the shipyard is moving the program forward. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on how the Coast Guard will correct missteps in the procurement and contracting process.
Coast Guard aviation also needs to replace its no-longer-manufactured MH-65s. While the MH 60 is more capable than the MH-65, I oppose the plan to reduce the total number of aircraft. I am also concerned about the proposed MH-60 modifications needed for sea operations.
As the Coast Guard modernizes its aviation assets, hangars and other ground assets also need to keep pace. The Committee will continue to monitor progress as the Coast Guard builds a new hangar at Barbers Point.
Finally, these assets, new and old, require IT and shoreside support. The Coast Guard’s IT infrastructure, including its merchant mariner credentialling system, is antiquated and presents serious limitations.
The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2023, reported out by this Committee, authorizes $36.3 million to modernize the Coast Guard’s IT systems, including $11 million for a new Merchant Mariner Credentialing System. The Subcommittee is also deeply concerned about the limited ability of the Service to access data about United States documented vessels. As the federal entity tasked with documenting vessels, that information should be at your fingertips.
To our witnesses — thank you for participating today. I look forward to a candid discussion on how Congress can support the Coast Guard’s efforts to modernize its assets, systems, and facilities.
Click here for more information from today’s hearing, including video and witness testimony.