BALTIMORE -- Cmdr. William Lane climbs down a steep ladder deep within the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bear.
Stepping over a pipe with paint blistered and bubbled by rust, the commanding officer ducks into a narrow storage area beside the hull and shines a flashlight into a dark corner mottled with rust, the smell of corroded iron mingling with diesel fuel and saltwater.
"I'm not sure how far into the hull plating it goes," Lane says as he peers into the void two feet below the cutter's waterline.
No water can seep in now. The 270-foot Bear has been in dry-dock at the Coast Guard Yard here since October, where it is undergoing a $10 million overhaul scheduled to last until May. When it was launched in 1980, the first of a class of medium-endurance cutters (WMEC) designed for search-and-rescue and law enforcement, the Bear was built to last 30 years. Now officials are counting on repairs and upgrades to give it another 10, maybe 15, years on patrol from its base in Portsmouth, Va.
"It's always a struggle," said Lane, whose vessel typically sails into heavy seas and stormy weather that Navy ships typically avoid, which contributes significantly to the cutters' higher rate of corrosion from salt air and water. His last patrol, a drug interdiction operation in the Caribbean, was delayed because of "a cascading set of failures" that included a busted water maker and problems with the propulsion controls. Before going into dry-dock, the Bear was logging 15 to 30 "casualties," or mechanical breakdowns, on every eight-week patrol.
"The crews on the ship work very, very hard to keep them running and executing their mission," Lane said, but, "It's a day-to-day fight."
One the Coast Guard has been fighting for more than a decade. A perfect storm of mismanagement, procurement cost overruns, expanded post-9/11 security duties, budget constraints and a rapidly aging fleet have combined, analysts say, to make a mockery of the service's motto: Semper Paratus -- Always ready.
The frequently floundering fleet -- the Bear was one of four WMECs in for rehab of a total 13 -- has increasingly struggled to carry out missions that range from port security to policing commercial fisheries to saving mariners to enforcing drug and immigration laws. Squeezed resources have also affected the Coast Guard's ability to inspect offshore drilling platforms to prevent future disasters like the BP Gulf oil spill.
The sea service came up short last year after another disaster, the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Of the dozen large cutters -- including the Bear -- sent to evacuate Americans and bring critical supplies to Haitians, 10 needed emergency repairs that delayed or took them out of action.
Earlier this year, the Cutter Mohawk was forced to suspend a Caribbean patrol for 10 days while it underwent emergency repairs in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to replace a busted lube oil cooler in the engine room. Other ships have been forced into port to repair or replace hydraulics, radar, propulsion, air conditioning and other critical systems worn down by age and overuse.
"We're sensitive to the fact that we're in fiscally tough times right now," said Vice Adm. Robert Parker, who commands the Coast Guard's Atlantic area. Still, "There's a certain breaking point ... where it's so hard to maintain it that the effort that you expend to maintain it really distracts you from the ability to do your job"
"I think we're at that latter stage now," he said.
The aging fleet "affects where you can go and how long you can be there and what you can do," said Robbin Laird, a defense analyst who follows Coast Guard issues closely. "Ship building is great job creation. If the president wants shovel-ready jobs, these are shovel-ready jobs."
IN DEEP WATER OVER DEEPWATER
The Coast Guard is charged with enforcing U.S. law in an exclusive economic zone that extends out 200 miles from shore and includes 90,000 miles of coastline. At 3.4 million square miles, it is the world's largest territorial sea zone.
In 2000, according to a USA Today story entered into the Congressional Record, the Coast Guard fleet patrolling those waters was older than 38 of 41 navies of similar size and mission. An ambitious modernization program known as Deepwater was soon launched, only to be entirely rethought after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Congress transferred the Coast Guard from the Department of Transportation to the new Department of Homeland Security to reflect its expanded role in maritime security.
But in a move many have likened to assigning the fox to guard the henhouse, the Coast Guard handed Deepwater to a joint venture between defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman. Delays, cost overruns, shoddy work and allegations of fraud soon followed. The Coast Guard was put back in charge of its own modernization last year as Congress barred private contractors from overseeing it.
But the damage was done. Deepwater was originally a $17 billion program that called for 91 new cutters, 124 new small boats and 247 new or modernized airplanes, helicopters and unmanned drones. By July 2011, the Government Accountability Office said the cost had ballooned to $29.3 billion. Delivery of all new vessels and aircraft has been pushed from 2018 to 2027.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, told The Huffington Post he still has doubts about the Coast Guard's ability to stop cost overruns in what remains a "flawed" program.
Still, the congressman said the Coast Guard needs new ships.
"If we had the money and support to do that, that would be optimal, but it just appears that Congress is not in the mindset of providing those funds," Thompson said.
Under the 2012 spending legislation recently passed by Congress, the Coast Guard will receive $10 billion, $86 million over this year's budget. The appropriations bill matches the $1.4 billion requested by President Obama to replace and sustain ships, boats, aircraft and other equipment.
The money will fund another National Security Cutter, which at 418-feet is nearly the size of a Navy frigate and the largest ship the Coast Guard has ever owned. The service recently took delivery of the Stratton, the third of eight high-endurance cutters to replace the vintage 1960s Hamilton-class cutters.
But, as Parker has noted, there is no money to replace the aging ice-breaking tugs that keep shipping lanes in the Great Lakes open in winter. Similarly, there is "no relief on the horizon" for old river buoy and construction tenders that aid navigation on inland waterways.
And then there is the lack of even one operational heavy icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean. At a time when global warming has led to more vessel traffic and the prospect of oil exploration in areas once permanently covered by sea ice, Congress has refused to fund new ships that could reach a sinking cruise ship or oil spill in the far north. House Republicans have threatened to scrap the last remaining heavy icebreaker, even as the State Department recently signed a treaty pledging to aid in major search-and-rescue operations that will be made more difficult, if not impossible, without the ice-busters.
ON THE MARGINS
But the Coast Guard's top priority is replacing "Famous class" cutters like the Bear and the even older 210-foot "Reliance class" cutters that first entered service during the Vietnam War with a new Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC).
Intended to be the workhorse of the service, the OPC was to have entered service in 2012 but was put on a back burner after Coast Guard officials realized they couldn't afford both it and the National Security Cutter at the same time. They opted for the latter and have since shown off the state-of-the-art vessels, most of them headed to the Pacific Coast and Alaska, where distances are far vaster than in the East.
The new federal budget includes just $25 million for final design work on the OPC before it is put out to bid for construction. The earliest possible delivery date for the first cutter is 2018.
The Coast Guard wants 25 OPCs, which would be the single largest purchase the service has ever made. Having already once escaped the chopping block, the OPC fleet is expected to cost $8.1 billion, more than double original estimates.
Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp has urged Congress to fully fund the new cutters. But GAO called the Coast Guard's modernization program "unachievable" given "today's climate of rapidly building fiscal pressures," and the previous commandant, Thad Allen, was reportedly pressured by the White House to tone it down after he complained about his service's ability to respond to crises like Haiti without new equipment.
Yet Ron O'Rourke, a naval affairs specialist at the Congressional Research Service, has warned for years that the Coast Guard wasn't asking for enough. Fiscal realities aside, he said, even if Deepwater was fully funded, the service would be left with "a force with as much as 40 percent fewer cutters and 50 percent fewer aircraft than the service calculates it would need to more or less fully perform its projected missions in coming years."
To buy all the cutters and aircraft it needs, O'Rourke estimates, would cost a staggering $65 billion, not including onshore support -- a figure more than twice what the service has requested.
The Coast Guard has New Jersey Republican Frank LoBiondi's sympathy, but the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee recently spoke for many lawmakers when he said Congress "will not simply supply a blank check" in a time of fiscal constraints.
"We are managing on the margins for all of the missions we consider important for the national interest but, quite frankly, we have to take some shortcuts," said Parker's Pacific Coast counterpart, Vice Adm. Manson Brown. Whether it's a terrorist attack like 9/11, a major oil spill or a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, "When there are surge events, we do accept a lot of risk," he said.
To mitigate that risk while it awaits the new cutters, the Coast Guard began a program in 2005 to retrofit many of its old ships with modern operating systems and even new hulls. At the time, only 40 percent of the fleet was fully mission-ready on any day. That number is now up to 60 percent, and the service is aiming for 80 percent by 2014.
But, as Parker notes, there is only so much that workers here in Baltimore can do. Take the Bear's main propulsion control console, which fills a large cabin. "You can replace the computing power that's in there with what's in an iPhone," he said.
Like other older ships, the Bear was built before stricter standards for sewage and graywater discharges, air pollution and fuel efficiency.
"Some of this stuff is so old, we have to custom fit parts -- it's not sustainable," Parker said. "It's like trying to take a 1970s car and really build it up to be a patrol car that we'd use out on the streets today."
Video produced for The Huffington Post by Sara Kenigsberg.
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