April 15, 2015 – Washington, DC
The House Subcommittee on Coast Guard & Maritime Transportation held an overview hearing on the U.S. Coast Guard’s missions on April 15. Testifying before the subcommittee was Vice Admiral Charles Michel, the U.S. Coast Guard Deputy Commandant for Operations.
Though the Arctic has loomed up as an increasing concern for an already stretched thin Coast Guard in trying to fulfill its safety and enforcement mission, the subject took up almost no time in the oral testimony and the questions and answers that were offered during the hearing.
The Arctic was broached only in the written testimony that VAdm. Michel submitted to the committee. The Arctic-related specific points included the following.
- Ice Operations and several other Coast Guard missions, including Marine Environmental Protection, Search and Rescue, Marine Safety, Living Marine Resources, Aids-to-Navigation, Defense Readiness, and other Law Enforcement will need to evolve as changes occur in the Arctic. Tourism activity may increase the demands on the Coast Guard to have the resources available for emergency response.
- The Arctic is extremely rich in natural resources, which adds to its geostrategic significance. Faced with limited infrastructure, extreme weather, and science gaps, emergency response to incidents such as oil spills are even more challenging in the Arctic.
- The challenges posed by Polar environments demand specialized capabilities and personnel who are trained and equipped to operate in the most unforgiving places on Earth. With reactivation of the POLAR STAR, the Coast Guard has returned to breaking channels through the ice and escorting petroleum and break bulk carriers to resupply the U.S. base of operations in McMurdo Sound in Antarctica. The POLAR STAR is the only ice breaker in the U.S. fleet capable of conducting this mission and providing assured access.
- Coast Guard resources protect national fisheries and fish stocks, particularly in Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off the coast of Alaska and New England. Beyond the EEZ, the Coast Guard enforces the High Seas Drift Net Act—which protects migratory fish stocks of significant economic interest to the U.S. commercial fishing industry—across vast distances in the North Pacific.
The hearing itself covered more general issues involving the Coast Guard, though the committee’s Florida members asked questions about drug interception and immigration patrol.
Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) asked VAdm. Michel what the Coast Guard needs from the Congress and the Obama Administration in order to carry out its mission. Rep. Hunter noted that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was cut the most in the President’s FY2016 budget request. VAdm. Michael said the biggest impact was on acquisition, “our most critical account,” despite the Coast Guard’s need for more infrastructure.
He said the President’s budget request for FY16 allows the Coast Guard to stay on track for Fast Response Cutter needs, and includes $70 million for Offshore Patrol Cutter design work. The Coast Guard will be on schedule to complete the National Security Cutter program in the coming fiscal year if the President’s budget for the department is passed as it is.
Ranking Member John Garamendi (D-CA) recited a list of targets laid out by the Coast Guard in 2009 in a five-year plan and asked whether the service met those targets, focusing mostly on maritime safety, search and rescue, immigration patrol, and security compliance in California. VAdm. Michel said the Coast Guard met all targets for safety inspections and search and rescue protocols, but noted an inability to meet some two-hour offshore search and rescue time requirements in the Great Lakes region because of equipment that was mismatched with the region’s heavy winter ice.
VAdm. Michel said that if the Coast Guard had the flexibility to reassign assets equipped for ice conditions and could overcome a helicopter shortage, the Coast Guard would be able to make up for the time response shortfalls. There were no discussions of Arctic search and rescue compliance or plans in this context. VAdm. Michel also reported the Coast Guard had a 99.3 percent security compliance rate for high-risk maritime facilities.
Rep. Hunter asked, “How do you prioritize the mission you do based on the budget you have? Next month the [Government Accountability Office] will look at how you do your own metrics. Give me example in the last six months where you’ve had to move around services.”
VAdm. Michel provided examples in Central America and other areas that are in need of more drug smuggling surveillance and immigration patrol, but said the Arctic is at an especially high risk for oil spills and lags behind in search and rescue capabilities because of a lack of infrastructure.
“So you’re saying the only thing you have the assets to do well is to save people, while everything else is on the wayside,” Rep. Hunter.
Rep. Garamendi expressed concern about how Department of Homeland Security authorizations have consistently been reduced to match declining appropriations budgeted, and over time the committee will diminish the role of the Coast Guard, largely due to sequestration. To meet the needs of Coast Guard, including a $1 billion icebreaker, Rep. Garamendi stressed the need for offsets and re-prioritization.
Rep. Don Young is a member of the subcommittee, but did not attend this hearing.