Allen ends his watch
Industry, legislators say commandant helped right Coast Guard's ship during difficult time.
By Chris Dupin
There is no lack of drama in the day-to-day work of the U.S. Coast Guard, whether it is rescuing fishermen whose boats have sunk, evacuating injured mariners from ships, intercepting billions of dollars of illicit drugs each year or directing cleanups after major oil spills.
|'I just had the watch and I am getting relieved of the watch, but the ship is moving off.'
Adm. Thad Allen
U.S. Coast Guard
Adm. Thad Allen, who steps down as the 23rd commandant of the Coast Guard in May, is always quick to point up the accomplishments of his rank and file ' whether it is those search-and-rescue efforts or the humanitarian work of the Coast Guard in Haiti following the earthquake.
But ask Allen about his own legacy and major accomplishments during his four-year tenure, and he is nothing if not demure.
'It is dangerous to take the life cycle of an organization and segment it into four-year pieces and relate that to a particular leader. The things we do have lifecycles that extend well beyond that,' was a typical comment at a press conference he held at the Connecticut Maritime Association in March. 'I just had the watch and I am getting relieved of the watch, but the ship is moving off.
'The Coast Guard serves the nation best when we institutionalize programs that are transparent, survive transitions of authority and leadership, and create better consistency and predictability,' he added.
On his effort at Coast Guard modernization: 'The biggest impact there has been unification of our maintenance and logistics system,' which he said in retrospect, will be seen as one of the most significant things that happened in the last four years.
He talked about the problems that arise from the way differences between operating budgets are put together by the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security, the need for a unified general ledger and accounting system, his frustration that he may go his entire tenure without an authorization bill and the fact that this prevents him from completing a reorganization of the agency's senior staff.
It's the kind of modesty and attention to detail that seems to have won Allen fans.
'At a time when the Coast Guard, I think, was deeply troubled, Adm. Allen, you were incredibly the right man at the right time to come in and get the Coast Guard sort of on the straight track here,' said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., ranking minority member of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, during the service's budget hearing earlier this year.
Allen took the helm at the Coast Guard at a time when its $27 billion modernization program, Deepwater, was rocked by controversy.
An effort to modify and extend 110-foot patrol boats by 13 feet ended up with eight 'boats that couldn't float,' according to Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House subcommittee. The Justice Department is suing to recover the $95 million lost as a result of the fiasco.
A whistleblower from Lockheed Martin claimed the electronics on the patrol boats were faulty and that electronic communications from the ships might not be secure.
John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, said when the Deepwater project was conceived in the late 1990s, it was the first time in decades that the Coast Guard had started with a clean slate to figure out its needs, rather than buying equipment in a piecemeal fashion.
The new ships and aircraft are vastly more complicated than the Coast Guard's old assets, he said, a necessity because of the need to communicate with both the military and local law enforcement in the event of an emergency. 'They are more like a consumer electronics show than bent metal,' he said.
Coast Guard acquisitions are also complicated, he said, because of the range of missions it has been assigned in the past and may have to carry out in the future ' everything from search and rescue to drug interdiction to what Pike calls 'stop and frisk' missions in the Middle East.
In 2002, Allen noted, the Coast Guard sent six boats to patrol oil platforms in Iraq, an industry that provides the nation with about 85 percent to 90 percent of its gross domestic product.
'They just outsourced too much management oversight' of Deepwater, Pike said. 'But this just reflects my general critique of major acquisitions at the Department of Defense and NASA and Coast Guard in the late 1990s and early part of this century, where they just threw the money at the contractor and 'come back when you are done.'
'You might argue, as some have in the case of the Coast Guard, that they felt they had to do it this way because they did not have the in-house expertise to manage an acquisition on this scale and complexity.'
As the program ran into difficulty, the Coast Guard took back oversight of the program and beefed up its acquisition staff. It now has 957 positions in its acquisition program, 842 of which are filled.
Allen 'was the right guy at the right time,' said Lt. James E. Dolbow, a member of the Annapolis-based U.S. Naval Institute's editorial board. (For the record, while he works for a defense contractor, Dolbow is a Coast Guard reservist.) 'He had to clean up more of the messes that he inherited from years of chronic underfunding.'
LoBiondo was one of several congressmen who expressed displeasure that the Obama administration has proposed a 2011 Coast Guard budget of $9.6 billion, which is 0.4 percent less than the 2010 budget.
While observers like Pike say that amounts to a 'rounding error' in the federal budget, LoBiondo called it 'a reckless and unconscionable slashing of funding for the Coast Guard operation and acquisitions.'
Cummings said 'there is no way to sugar coat what the impact of these proposed cuts would be: they will reduce the capacity of the Coast Guard to carry out its missions.
'For example, the Coast Guard has lowered from 18.5 percent in fiscal year 2010 to 15.5 percent in fiscal year 2011 the projected target removal rate for cocaine from non-commercial vessels in maritime transit. In plain English, according to the Coast Guard's own performance measures, reduced patrol hours will likely mean that fewer drugs will be interdicted at sea,' Cummings said.
'I am deeply, deeply concerned by the proposed reductions in the Coast Guard's budget,' he said, and told Allen, 'I promise you, I think you'll have unanimous support from this subcommittee, and probably the Transportation Committee, to restore these cuts.'
'I'm not happy to live with the cuts, but I understand my responsibility,' Allen said. 'We are dealing with the hard budget realities of a constrained fiscal environment and the need to reduce the deficit. Given the funding level provided to us, we had to make some hard choices, and my first principle was to not stop recapitalization especially in regards to building out our National Security Cutter (NSC),' 418-foot ships that are the largest being built under the Deepwater project.
The Coast Guard is proposing to reduce the size of its military workforce by 1,112 positions while increasing its civilian workforce by 339 for a net reduction of 773 positions.
Commercial Shipping. Allen said he did not expect the budget cuts would affect container inspections and port state inspections of ships that the Coast Guard does or for the workforce reduction to 'materially affect directly the marine safety program.
'We have a requirement in this country that within the coastline areas that if we get a distress call to be there in two hours with an aircraft or a boat. Those standards exist and we have readiness standards and there are people ready to respond to that and those are not changed,' he said.
Also unaffected are resources added in recent years, including so-called 'centers of expertise,' that the Coast Guard created for various segments of the shipping industry ' offshore oil and gas, brown water towing, 'vintage vessels' on the Great Lakes, and cruise ships.
One potential challenge the budget poses is how the Coast Guard will deal with extra workload related to towing vessel regulations expected to be spelled out in a notice of proposed rulemaking this spring. Anne Davis Burns, a spokeswoman for the American Waterways Operators, which supports the rules, said they would result in a new requirement for inspections and a sweeping change in how the towing industry is regulated.
Allen said he has worked hard during his tenure to obtain better treatment for seafarers when their ships call at U.S. ports. He issued a directive two years ago to all hands in the Coast Guard. He also plans to make seafarer access an issue that will have to be addressed as facility response plans required under the Maritime Transportation and Security Act come up for five-year reviews. Today he said there are inconsistencies, sometimes between terminals in the same port.
The Coast Guard has also become better equipped to help ports and terminals resume trade after natural or man-made disasters, he said. It set up a maritime transportation recovery unit in St. Louis after Hurricane Katrina and Rita ' near enough to have easy contact with Gulf ports, but far away enough not to be impacted by weather ' to help get navigational aids in place and help ports determine priorities as they resume activities.
|The Waesche is one of two national security cutters already built. Eight NCSs will replace four of the Coast Guard's 'high-endurance cutters.'|
That unit refined its procedures in hurricanes Ike and Gustav, and was used to coordinate response after major oil spills in recent years in or near Lake Charles, New Orleans and Port Arthur.
For example, the Coast Guard came up with procedures for tankers to traverse the area where oil spills were and have hulls cleaned so that deliveries could continue.
'The upshot is that we are developing an ongoing competency within the Coast Guard to manage transportation recovery,' he said. The experience was even useful in assisting the Navy in getting relief to Haiti.
'I firmly believe Congress will reverse the budget cuts and the Coast Guard will get an increase in funding by the time the process is done,' Dolbow said. 'I think this is political theater at its best.
'Congress is tasked with maintaining an Army and Navy and part of that includes the Coast Guard,' he said. 'For decades it underfunded the Coast Guard and the first time the executive branch sends a budget to the Hill with cuts, they become converts to increased Coast Guard funding.'
Dolbow claimed there has been a 'generation-long procurement holiday stretching back to the late 1960s when the Coast Guard was transferred from the Treasury to the Transportation Department. They went 35 years between commissioning a large cutter.'
With what LoBiondo believes is one of the oldest fleets among the world's coast guards, the U.S. agency has a big need for new ships, with 10 of the dozen cutters assigned to the Haiti relief operation suffering major casualties. LoBiondo said two were forced to return to port for emergency repairs and one proceeded to emergency dry dock.
The Coast Guard has proposed reducing its workforce by decommissioning five cutters, including four of its dozen 378-foot 'high-endurance cutters,' which had been the largest ships in its fleet. Some are more than 40 years old.
Those high-endurance cutters are being replaced by the eight NSCs, the first two of which have been built. Another is more than one-third completed, the hull of a fourth will be laid this year, and funding for a fifth is included in the 2011 budget.
Allen said told Congress: 'preservation of the Coast Guard's maritime capability through the recapitalization of surface and air assets is a strategic imperative.'
In addition to the NSCs the 2011 budget includes funds for refurbishing a 270-foot medium-endurance cutter, design of the offshore patrol cutter, and construction of four more fast response cutters. Another fiscal year 2011 recapitalization priority is the HC-144A maritime patrol aircraft, which will replace the HU-25 Falcon, approaching the end of its service life.
'Even if Deepwater exceeded earlier estimates, it was still a bargain program,' said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. 'The Coast Guard was so undercapitalized for so long that the post 9/11 strategic and political environment gave them a chance to get a little healthier. They were too small and too under-equipped and using a lot of older equipment. I generally support what the Coast Guard was trying to do by enlarging its force and fleet.'
One frequently asked question is whether the Coast Guard should be part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Some analysts like Dolbow think the agency would be better off as part of the Defense Department as it was during World War I and World War II, believing it would get better funding.
But even he allows that the Coast Guard is a 'unique national security tool. When that cutter with a white hull pulls into a port, it is not seen as threatening as a gray-hull warship,' he said. 'The Coast Guard is great for diplomacy because they save lives ' no matter who the fisherman is who is in distress. They get a lot of respect worldwide.'
Pike points to the Coast Guard's big presence in Haiti as an example of the kind of delicate mission it is able to handle.
'I think basically they had a significant fraction of their seaworthy fleet in the Atlantic down there. Everybody had the good taste not to point out why, but if the long suffering people of Haiti had decided to punch out, we could have had a really big boatlift on our hands,' he said.
In addition to the humanitarian and evacuation work they did, Pike believes 'clearly the Coast Guard went down there so on the off chance that Haiti decided to hop into a boat and come to South Carolina, the Coast Guard would be able to talk them out of it before they got to American waters.'
'You are never going to find a department in government where we are a perfect fit,' Allen said. 'But I think the best fit for us is DHS and I have always felt that way. I led the transition out of the Department of Transportation to DHS in 2003 as chief of staff.
'We are a much better agency working for the federal government because we are in the same department as the Federal Maritime Emergency Agency and FEMA is a much better agency working for the federal government because they are in a department with us. The synergy there is extraordinary, and the potential synergies with Customs and Border Protection are the same,' he said.
'We have a record of getting our appropriations on time at Homeland Security that far exceeds our appropriations under the Department of Transportation,' he said. 'Show me the money.'