The Missing National Security Cutters: Reducing U.S. Security One Step at a Time


by Robbin Laird

Chris Cavas of Defense News as he often prone to do, was first to report a key development.

They’re gone.

In a move that could trim about $1.4 billion from its shipbuilding plan, the U.S. Coast Guard lost two of its newest, largest, most capable — and most expensive — cutters in the fiscal 2013 budget request sent to Congress on Feb. 13.

As expected, the service is asking for $683 million to build one Bertholf-class national security cutter (NSC), the sixth of a planned eight-ship class built by Huntington Ingalls Industries at Pascagoula, Miss. The ships are replacing 12 worn-out high endurance cutters dating from the 1960s and 1970s.

But there is no request this year for long-lead funding for the seventh or eighth NSCs, and the service’s five-year capital investment plan shows no money for new Bertholfs beyond the sixth ship.

This is not about a ship and its systems; it is about strategic direction and success or failure in core national security missions. Nothing less; nothing more. Credit Image: Bigstock

Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Coast Guard’s parent agency, attempted to explain the elimination of the two cutters when she testified before Congress Feb. 15 on the budget.

“What we are going to do, and this is all guided by really looking at the nation’s resources and the Budget Control Act and how it works, and there’s language in the budget request to this effect, we will look at seven and eight in light of what the Navy is doing,” Napolitano said.

“So we need to look at what the Department of Defense is doing with respect to their own force … to see what we need to be putting in the acquisition pipeline.”

Napolitano did not elaborate on how the Navy’s shipbuilding plans affect the Coast Guard requirement for eight NSCs, but she noted the struggle to get funding for the ships.

Napolitano said she has “fought very hard for those cutters in the three years” she has been in office. “We had a fight about getting four and five and six and the president has fully funded six. But we need to make sure that our resources are correlated with what, particularly, the Navy is going to do moving forward after that.”

As one long-term observer put it nicely: “So what does she have in mind.  The USCGC Bertholf will be relieved by a navy destroyer or the LCS or what?”

While the USCG missions don’t go away, its operational resources do.

And where are the additional cutters, the Offshore Patrol Cutters, going to come from?

Where is the President’s presentation of the missions which are being eliminated, the lives which will be lost, the fisheries which will not be protected and how his cuts driven by OMB are doing this?

Not the financial crisis, not an act of God, but Inside the Beltway dynamics.  And where are the Congressman asking the tough questions?

As Jim Carafano of the Heritage Foundation has warned:

The Administration’s decision to cut the seventh and eighth NSCs from the projected fleet is extremely short-sighted. Budget materials do not explain the immediate savings realized by cutting advanced funding for the vessels. The Administration also does not account for the cost implication this cut will have on the entire fleet, both in materials and maintenance costs. The NSC program has already realized significant savings through increasing efficiencies and economies of scale. A cost analysis should be performed over the entire fleet to examine what effect these proposed cuts would have.

Admiral Papp explained in his recent address that “the Maritime Transportation System accounts for nearly 700 billion dollars of the U.S. gross domestic product and 51 million U.S. jobs.”[6] In this context, the NSC fleet would prove a wise investment. The platform’s far-reaching capabilities would enable the Coast Guard to better defend against threats before they are able to get within range of U.S. ports. The President’s budget proclaims $1.4 billion saved by cutting two NSCs. However, many argue that the Coast Guard actually provides an extremely cost-effective security force. Before cutting these vessels, Congress should consider the level of risk to maritime security the U.S. is willing to accept.

Where is the impact analysis Mr. President?

Where are the jobs which building these ships provides going next?

Why can’t the country invest in shipbuilding, which is real versus spurious alternative energy investments in bankrupt companies?

The economic and security consequences of NOT building these ships far outweigh the costs of building them. The USCG and its activities actually puts money into the national treasury, not just draws from it.

And, of course, we once again see Inside the Beltway’s ignorance of the Arctic mission. There are billons of dollars of resources on the table in the Arctic, but no real USCG coverage.  Oh, I forgot. Destroyers and Submarines are on their way!

And cutting Cutters, both NSCs and OPCs, is a sure way to remain in 5th place in the Arctic Council.

And for an Administration which spends more time on process hand wringing than actually building anything, when the USCG and its shipbuilder get to the point of building a good ship at a FIXED PRICED CONTRACT, the response is “thank you very much.  Goodbye.”