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David Helvarg Headshot

Save the Coasties

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The U.S. Coast Guard is an odd duck, a multi-mission maritime agency that is both a military and a law enforcement service. It saves far more lives than it takes -- about one million since its founding 220 years ago.

Maybe that difference is why it's getting the prop screw in President Obama's 2011 budget even though it had the first ship, first planes and first military doctors on the ground after the Haitian earthquake last month and did the surveys that discovered the main port needs massive reconstruction before it can handle significant long-term relief shipments. Less than five years ago the Coast Guard was the only part of the U.S. government that functioned in the first critical days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. "Coasties," as they call themselves, rescued over 33,500 of some 60,000 citizens saved in the wake of the disaster. They also coordinated the largest maritime rescue in world history on 9-11, helping evacuate half a million people from lower Manhattan.

The Coast Guard's maritime missions cover a broad range of activities including not only search and rescue but port security, buoy tending, oil spill response, narcotics and migrant smuggling interdiction and fisheries enforcement that provide us the safety, security and stewardship on our public seas we've come to expect. As the 21st century advances into its second decade it's become increasingly clear America needs its odd duck.

Unfortunately the Coast Guard has always been an institutional orphan in Washington, shuttled between the Treasury Department, the Navy, Department of Transportation and, since 2003, the Department of Homeland Security. Without strong institutional support or advocates in the White House or on Capitol Hill this smallest of the armed services, with just over 42,000 active duty members, has been forced to adopt an operational culture of "doing more with less."

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001 the Coast Guard budget, that had until then seen a decade of cutbacks, grew from around 5 billion to just over 10 billion dollars, but most of that was focused on security. Its armed responders grew in number from around 300 to 3,000 and its small boats and helicopter fleet were equipped with machine guns and .50 caliber sniper rifles. But as a top admiral explained to me as I was working on my recent book, Rescue Warriors - The U.S. Coast Guard, America's Forgotten Heroes, "We shifted assets to security, and we've failed to keep pace on the safety and environmental side."

President Obama's 2011 budget not only fails to address this huge challenge but actually mandates a 3 percent cut for the Coast Guard that will require a reduction in force of some 773 active duty positions. At the same time the budget provides 2.3 percent growth for the Pentagon giving the other four military services that operate under the Department of Defense over $708 billion.

So why is it that the armed services that kill people get more than 70 times the support than the one whose primary mission is to save lives? Part of the answer is the corrosive effect of top-tier defense contractors who have learned to lobby Congress both through direct campaign contributions and political favors as well as through subcontracting major defense jobs into as many Congressional Districts as possible.

But I think there's also something deeper going on. For thousands of years warfare has been the main rite of passage by which young men proved themselves as warriors and heroes and those who survived went on to become the leaders of their clans, tribes and nations.

Today, given the social and economic interdependence of an increasingly crowded planet, and faced with growing impacts from environmental and natural disasters, terrorism, industrial poisonings and pandemics, I see an alternative role model for our youth emerging.

In the future, our warriors and heroes may more often arise from the ranks of young women and men willing to go in harm's way to confront a wide but unknowable range of catastrophes in unusual and dangerous settings on a planet that's two-thirds saltwater. That, to me, sounds very much like the definition of a Coastie.

So when you look at the collapse of global fisheries and rise of piracy, seaborne migrants, coastal populations at risk, the growth of commercial shipping and impacts of fossil-fuel fired climate change including the opening of U.S. Arctic waters, the sensible response would be to double the Coast Guard in this decade and double it again by 2030 so it's closer in size to the U.S. Marine Corps than the New York Police Department. You could grow the Coast Guard 25 percent this year just with the price of extra C-17 transport planes that the Pentagon says it doesn't need to defend the nation but that contractor-friendly politicians on Capitol Hill keep promoting.

Unfortunately the administration's budget totally fails to recognize Coast Guard expansion as the kind investment in our future we need to commit to. Rather it seems to penalize the Coast Guard for being as effective as it is, implicitly saying, "If you can do more with less, maybe you can do everything with close to nothing."