Coast Guard Fleet over 40 years old, Daylight can be seen through ship hulls


(MILITARY TIMES)   Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen made his yearly case to Congress on April 22 that the poor condition of his fleet means the service needs every dime it can get — even though the Obama administration hasn’t yet submitted the budget that will say how much it needs.

Allen shared fresh photographs and horror stories about the disintegration of the Coast Guard’s 378-foot high endurance cutters, which continue to rattle improbably around the oceans only because Coast Guardsmen have become so adept at keeping them afloat, he said.

“The reason we’re able to operate these ships today, as they are, is because of the quality of the crews,” Allen told Navy Times. “You could make the case that the crews don’t deserve the quality of the ships.”

The Alameda, Calif.-based cutter Boutwell, which deployed in January along with a Navy amphibious group, was sidelined for three weeks in Bahrain in early April after an engine-room fire destroyed one of its gas turbines. The Coast Guard had to fly out a new engine and a team of engineers to make the repairs, Allen said.

Engine-room fires have become a grim routine for the three- and four-decade-old 378s, which have churned their power plants and endured battering seas much longer than their designers intended. There were 18 engine-room fires aboard 378s last year, according to Allen’s testimony, and there already have been seven this year.

Corrosion and fatigue also have plagued several cutters. Two — Dallas and Gallatin — had such severe structural problems that they were taken out of service for repairs in Charleston, S.C. And Allen showed lawmakers a photograph taken aboard the cutter Jarvis in which daylight shone clearly through rust holes in the ship’s hull.

Allen testified before the homeland security subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, the members of which generally were receptive to his requests for support. But there were no specifics on how much money the Coast Guard wanted in the fiscal 2010 budget, which won’t be sent to Congress until late May or June — weeks later than normal.

Even as subcommittee chairman Rep. David Price, D-N.C., seemed likely to support the Coast Guard’s eventual request, he did say he worried about the Coast Guard’s ability to carry out its missions with fewer ships.

“When you say that 43 percent of your patrol hours are being cut, that’s a warning sign,” he said.

Allen conceded the Coast Guard was highly stressed but said top commanders have tried to fill gaps with any assets they could find. For example, with fewer front-line cutters available for law enforcement missions off the U.S. coast, the Coast Guard has been giving those jobs to its seagoing buoy tenders, Allen said.

Also testifying was John Hutton, director of the acquisition and sourcing management team of the Government Accountability Office. Hutton unveiled a report that found the Coast Guard was making progress in taking over its acquisition programs from the contractors who have run them for the past several years. But 16 percent of positions in the acquisitions directorate are still unfilled, he said, as the Coast Guard competes with other federal agencies for qualified acquisitions workers.

Allen also told the committee that the Coast Guard was scaling back the number of contractors who served as cooks and food-service workers at Coast Guard shore stations. Fewer shore billets for active-duty Coast Guardsmen meant that mess workers had to go to sea more than anyone else in the service, and officials hope opening more shore billets will give them a break from constant deployments.

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