WASHINGTON (CN) - The Coast Guard plans to make drastic cuts to its rusty fleet to meet a shrinking 2011 budget, a move that comes after one boat lost a propeller to the deep sea and 10 of the 12 rescue ships sent to Haiti broke down, the Coast Guard's admiral said on Friday. The rest of the military is receiving a roughly three percent funding increase.
Under the proposed budget for the 2011 fiscal year, Coast Guard funding would drop by 3 percent, to $10.1 billion, and it would trim more than 1,100 military personnel, leaving the service with just under 42,000.
The Coast Guard - saddled with a broad range of duties, including border patrol, search-and-rescue responsibilities, and even security missions in the Persian Gulf - is often referred to as the "quiet department" and is facing shrinking funds as the rest of the military sees a funding increase.
But being at the end of the line is nothing new for the department. While the Navy uses its ships for an average of 14 years, the Coast Guard must maintain its ships for an average of 41 years.
Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen said the state of the department's largest ships "is of serious concern," and pressed the importance of transitioning to a new fleet.
He noted to the audience, which chewed on salad and sipped on coffee, that of the 12 large ships sent to help recovery efforts in Haiti, 10 suffered breakdowns that altered their missions, including two that were forced to return to port for emergency repairs.
In late 2008, a propeller and shaft fell off the Coast Guard's oldest ship, the Cutter Acushnet. The Coast Guard has had the ship since 1946 and it is schedule to be retired next year.
To fit into a tighter budget, the branch plans to decommission five of its largest and oldest ships, four medium-range surveillance jets, and five search-and-rescue helicopters. It also plans to suspend five of its 12 marine safety and security teams, each made up of 90 members.
Allen - who has campaigned for increases in funding - said the Coast Guard is prepared to work with a smaller budget, so long as the reductions are predictable. "Everybody always wants more. You never have enough budget," he said in remarking that the Coast Guard will simply have to work within its means.
The cuts will allow for the purchase of two new large ships, a new NC-144A Ocean Sentry patrol propeller plane, four new 154-foot Sentinel Class Cutters, and 10 medium boats.
During a question and answer session after his speech, Allen said the Coast Guard will hire 300 civilians, suggesting that the shift from military personnel to civilian personnel is a way to trim costs.
The cuts come at a time when more is being demanded of the Coast Guard, which was the first agency to respond to the earthquake crisis in Haiti, which performs missions in the Persian Gulf, which saw increased port security requirements after Sept. 11, and which must work harder to fight Mexican drug cartels and migrant trafficking.
Receding sea ice north of Alaska is also expanding the Coast Guard's range into vast newly navigable waters.
But in submitting his fiscal year 2011 budget, President Obama has warned that spending cuts won't be easy, and he said he is focusing spending where he feels it is essential, and cutting spending where it is not.
When asked if the United States should pay more attention to patrolling the arctic waters, especially given that other nations are spending more to expand there, Allen gave a resounding "yes," noting that "we have a looming crisis and that's the condition of our polar ice breakers."
He said nonetheless that such ice breakers can cost up to $1 billion each - a tenth of the department's total budget - so the nation should carefully plan how it intends to influence the increasingly navigable arctic.
Allen added that the United States should push for an international agreement to create a traffic separation stream in the Bering Straight - which runs between Russia and Alaska - to avoid collisions as shipping congestion increases.
The speech was his fourth and final annual State of the Coast Guard address. He plans to retire in May. Allen, 61, said he has had 47 addresses and is finally ready to settle down.