Doing More With Less: No Longer an Option for the Coast Guard

Published Jan 14, 2011 11:04 AM by Joseph Keefe

It would be an understatement to say that U.S. Coast Guard Commandant ADM Thad Allen has had a very busy three weeks. Culminating yesterday in his first appearance before the House Committee on Appropriations and subcommittee on Homeland Security (another is scheduled for today), where he discussed the President’s fiscal year (FY) 2009 budget request for the Coast Guard, he also appeared at a Senate Committee hearing on oil spill protection (4 March), and in mid-February, he gave the annual state-of-the-Coast Guard address at the National Press Club in Washington, followed by a quick trip to Houston to address the MARE Forum (Maritime Transportation of Energy) 2008. No doubt I missed a few others and somewhere in between all of that, he’s found time to run the Coast Guard.

Allen’s tenure as Coast Guard Commandant has so far been anything but easy and he got dealt a less than perfect hand as he took the reigns. Deepwater, poor internal accounting, marine safety program headaches -- you name it, he’s had to set about fixing it. And why not? After all, they brought in the guy who picked up the pieces after Katrina to do the same with programs and processes within the Coast Guard that were also perceived to be “broken.” Allen knows what has to be done and he has set about an aggressive pace to make it happen. But the one thing he is no longer prepared to do is to labor under what he characterizes as “the inferred motto” of doing more with less.

In recent conversations with ADM Allen, MarEx also learned that his interpretation of what needs to be done -- and more importantly why -- differs considerably with some widely held notions. Allen is fully prepared to defend every penny of the President’s proposed FY-2009 budget and has characterized the amount as adequate for the coming year. But, this is only the start, he says. “An adequate, permanent recapitalization plan is needed.” Beyond this, he insists that discussions surrounding Coast Guard acquisitions and appropriations can no longer be couched in terms of “whether or not we need the Coast Guard.” He says, rather strongly I might add, “That discussion is over.”

Allen instead grounds any discussion regarding Coast Guard appropriations in terms of their operational realities. “You can talk a long time about what happened with the marine safety product line, if you will, around the early 1990’s, but there were certain external things that happened to us to put that program in a hole. That doesn’t impeach the concept,” he says. Much has been made of the deterioration of the Coast Guard’s delivery of service to the commercial mariner and the maritime industry in general over the past two decades. In response, Allen has laid down the law within the Coast Guard as to how service should be delivered. He’s also asking the congress to put their money where their mouth is.

The wholesale overhaul of many aspects of how the Coast Guard does business is now underway. Part of that effort will involve an internal culture change. Another important part will be the extent to which Congress decides to appropriate funding for this important, multi-missioned service. Allen perhaps puts it best when he says, “We have multi-missioned cutters and multi-missioned people that you put in place and we can do five or six different things. We can’t do five or six different things at once.” All of this goes towards both the recapitalization of rapidly aging physical assets, as well as the size of the Coast Guard.

It is a fact that today’s Coast Guard -- with an ever-expanding mission mix -- is operating with the same number of personnel that it had a generation ago. To put things in further perspective, today’s Coast Guard, which can be neatly seated within the confines of the Washington Nationals new baseball venue, is expected to guard 95,000 miles of coastline with a force roughly equivalent to the size of the New York City Police Department. Allen knows, as he tries to meet the growing portfolio of duties and emerging challenges, that there is a limit to how fast the force can grow. But, he says, "We are talking about thousands, not hundreds of personnel." In fact, he insists that the Coast Guard may need to grow its head count, in the short term, by as many 1,200-to-1,700 annually.

A $9.3 billion budget is enough to make even the most hardened of Capitol Hill observers blink. The reality of this number is that even a penny less in appropriations endangers the safety of millions of boaters, the environment itself and just as importantly, the very frontline of national homeland security. The maritime industry itself, long crying out for reform in the way the Coast Guard provides service, should back the full amount of the President’s request and hold their congressional delegation’s feet to the fire until they get it. Only then can they expect ADM Allen to do the same with the full breadth of the marine safety program.

The guy who brought New Orleans back from the brink in the sloppy wake of Katrina can also be counted on to lead the Coast Guard out of the woods on any number of challenges. Thad Allen also says, "Doing more with less is over." I believe him. And, while he uses those words (in part) as a pry to ensure adequate funding for his portfolio of missions, from my perspective, the continued expectation for the Coast Guard to do more with less is a recipe for disaster. Allen, better than anyone else, ought to know -- he’s lived that reality for his entire career. Now, he’d like to finish that career by bringing the Coast Guard all the way back. Along the way, he’ll need some help. - MarEx

Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments and questions about this or any other article in this newsletter at [email protected]