Sequestration forces Coast Guard to get creative

Thursday - 3/13/2014, 5:22pm EDT

USCG Commandant Adm. Bob Papp on "The Federal Drive" with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp

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By Jason Fornicola
Federal News Radio

As the ripple effects of sequestration continue to be felt throughout the government, the Coast Guard found itself in the unusual position of depending on its officers to do more than they typically do.

The budget led to officers taking on tasks they weren't necessarily trained for.

"Last year, because of inability to get underway, we actually had junior officers who were finishing up their tours without being completely qualified in their duties because they couldn't get enough underway days ... those sort of things have a lasting effect. Hopefully, now that we're able to restore our hours in FY14, we'll be back on track to our normal performance levels," USCG Commandant Adm. Bob Papp said Thursday on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. Coast Guardsmen morale took a hit as well.

Adm. Bob Papp, Coast Guard Commandant (USCG photo by Telfair H. Brown Sr.)

"It's very frustrating for them," Papp said. "Coast Guardsmen love to have good tools and the opportunity to use them and the taxpayers have been providing those ships and aircraft and they want to get out there and not only perform the job, but it also adds to their proficiency."

Along with morale and workforce issues, Papp said the service is trying to make up for operational challenges too.

He said the USCG had a particularly hard time combating the influx of illegal drugs coming into the country.

Coast Guard cutters remaining on the docks due to sequestration "was a tremendous, tremendous waste of assets," Papp said. "We've got good ships and good people out there that want to do their jobs, but putting fuel in ships is one of the most expensive things we do, and during sequestration the only option we had was to cut money out of operations because there are other protected accounts like pay accounts that we could not go into. So, sequestration resulted in a direct decline of Coast Guard operations."

Papp said during normal operations there might be six or seven ships deployed in the Caribbean or Eastern Pacific, but at times last year the Coast Guard had only one ship on either side of Central America. The result of that decrease in availability of ships resulted in 30 percent more cocaine made it through the transit zone. Papp said that is the best place to prevent the inflow of drugs into the country.

"The maritime boarder is really the toughest to take care of," Papp said. "What you want to do to interdict any threats to your country as far out at sea as possible ... There is approximately 800 metric tons of cocaine produced in South America; there's about 400 metric tons of cocaine consumed across the United States. The best place to stop that is to interdict it in what we call the 'transit zone' — when it leaves South America by ship or boat and goes into Central America and then gets broken down into smaller loads for transport across the border into the United States. The Coast Guard interdicts multi-ton loads in the transit zone as opposed to police capturing small packets on the streets. So we try to keep our cutters forward deployed, but last year's sequestration forced us to reduce our cutter presence down there by about 25 percent."

Not all bad news

If there were positives that came out of such adversity, one may have been the Coast Guard's ability to adapt and find alternative solutions by relying on relationships with other countries.

"That's the beauty of the Coast Guard, we're very creative at coming up with solutions," Papp said.

He added between South and Central America there are about 40 bilateral agreements with other countries to work cooperatively with them. In addition to Canada, the Netherlands, France and Great Britain who occasionally send their Navy ships through those waters.

"We put U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachments on them which allows them — if they detect a target of interest — we can actually have them change operation control the Coast Guard, deploy one of our law enforcement teams and arrest those people under U.S. law," he said.

Papp also said he is ensuring the agency is in the best position possible going forward.

"My focus has been to rebuild our infrastructure because my job as commandant is to look 10, 20, 30, 40 years down the line, but I also have to try to balance operations as well and as the budget's been squeezed down a bit the only thing you can take out of it on a year-to-year basis is a reduction in our operational presence out there," he said.

Papp said the administration and Congress are working together to keep the Coast Guard's shipbuilding programs going.

"With the '15 budget that's up on the Hill right now, the administration put in money for our eighth national security cutter which will complete that will project. And we're on embarked on another project now to replace our medium endurance cutters that we use for drug interdiction and migrant interdiction," he said. Papp plans to retire later this year, and the advice he'd give to his successor is straightforward.

"Keep the foot on the pedal and keep going hard," he said. "It's a constant struggle; our country is challenged both economically and in the federal budget. We believe the Coast Guard is a good place to spend the taxpayers' money. We've got great friends in Congress because they know they get a good return on investment. My advice to him is first of all keep the standards high with in the service, make sure our people are operating out there and gaining their proficiency, and then keep telling the story so that we get the support from both the administration and the Congress to get the right tools out there for our people."

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