State-of-the-Coast-Guard: Strong, but for how long?

Published Jan 25, 2011 10:15 AM by The Maritime Executive

ADM Allen lays it all on the line, as only he can do – and with grace and style. And the message is clear: how much risk are you willing to take?

Washington , DC : I guess I’m a rube. Whenever I get to go to the National Press Club, I’m excited beyond belief. I never fail to show up a little early and get a cup of coffee in the Corner Café. This time, I sent a buddy of mine an E-mail from my Blackberry to that effect, as I also drank in the atmosphere. No doubt the Commandant’s annual State-of-the-Coast Guard (SOTCG) address is not a big one for this venue, but for me, it is always special. This time was no different.

A few observations here: in comparison to last year, the event was not well attended. That much was painfully obvious. On the other hand, the crush of media this year easily eclipsed last year’s number by a wide margin. Someone – I’m not sure who – explained to me that the economy had taken its toll. People who normally would have flown in for the event chose not to, and the usual throngs of foreign Coast Guard "flag" rank attendees were conspicuously light. Analyzing all of that is certainly a subjective exercise, but I’m going to say that the mainstream media is suddenly much more aware of the importance of our fifth uniformed, military branch, even if the general public is not. Nevertheless, and as I slunk out of town at 5 AM on Wednesday, the morning edition of The Washington Post had no mention of the event.

ADM Allen has a unique way of saying what needs to be said, without offending anyone in the process. He was deliberately vague about specifics of the ongoing budget debates, frustrating perhaps some of the more aggressive reporters in attendance, but privately admitted after the fact that “these things are delicate.” Indeed. His position and that of the Coast Guard in general is a precarious one. Although accustomed to being the bride’s maid on many fronts, it is still difficult to be gracious when you receive through the Stimulus Package the sum of $98,000,000 for Coast Guard for Acquisition, Construction, and Improvements, instead of the $450,000,000 as proposed by the Senate.

That same Stimulus Package also stipulates that the new funding cannot be used for pre-acquisition survey, design, or construction of a new polar icebreaker. Allen carefully avoided criticizing that language but also said, “I'm more concerned about losing current capability and putting this country in a position where they're at risk and unable to establish presence in the Arctic. The current ice breaker fleet is my main focus.” Such is the plight of the Coast Guard in an era where the Arctic mission is likely to grow exponentially despite having only three suitable platforms from which to conduct business; one of which is out of service.

Allen, of course, touched upon all the hot button issues; marine safety, mariner documentation, search-and-rescue and a host of others. It was an upbeat speech and you didn’t need to take a lot of notes. Of course, you couldn’t have a talk like this without mentioning Deepwater and the Coast Guard acquisition program. The Commandant dove right in: "Let me be clear on this: Any discussion of our acquisition organization and its effectiveness needs to begin with where we are today and what has been accomplished in the last two and a half years. We must always learn from the past and make corrections where needed, but today we are in a new place and it needs to be recognized."

Lost on most of the audience, however, was the most important message of the day. Allen, if nothing else, is pragmatic. Sure, he is “done doing more with less.” On Tuesday afternoon, however, he went a step further: “We will do what we can with what we have.” And, while no one would doubt his tenacity in doing all that he can, the real message had been delivered. In other words, the President and the Congress – and the American people – need to decide how much risk they are willing to take in the face of an inadequately funded Coast Guard mission. That mission includes the Arctic, homeland security, drug interdiction, illegal immigration, search-and-rescue and about 1,000 others.

On Tuesday, it was refreshing to see the increased and enthusiastic media presence at this event. To be sure, and at the press conference that followed, the mainstream reporters in the tightly packed scrum around the Commandant got in their licks. For me, it was a lesson in protocol. And, the woman reporter who elbowed me out of the inner circle knew her business. Had the microphone she wielded with anger been a sword, I’d be grinding out this column from a hospital bed. The Washington Redskins could do a lot worse than sign a few of these people for interior line slots. Clearly, I’m going to have to bring up my game.

I’m pretty sure I was the only reporter there with a Radio Shack tape recorder. Nevertheless, I did get in one question about invasive species (to the collective disgust and sighs of all the other media people). I thought (foolishly) that our commercial readers might want to know that any definitive (proposed) standard on invasive species equipment testing protocol was going to have to wait (still another six months) until the Obama Administration sifted through the paperwork. Go figure.

ADM Allen repeated it ten times in the course of his address: The Coast Guard is strong. And, I have no doubt that he is right. It is also clear that this cannot continue much longer, unless the mission is funded as it should be. My Dad told me a long time ago that life insurance is a simple thing: they’re betting that you won’t die; you’ve decided that you are willing to pay to say that you will (just in case). Some people choose not to spend the money for a term policy or one of those Northwestern Mutual Life annuity deals. Which camp are you in? – MarEx.

Click HERE to read the Commandant’s 2009 State of the Coast Guard Address.

Click HERE to Joseph Keefe’s interview of the Commandant (March 2008).

Joseph Keefe is the Editor-in-Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached at [email protected] with questions and/or comments on this or any other article in this e-newsletter. BTW: He’s got a Northwestern Mutual Life annuity.