America’s Navy and Coast Guard make a great team. The Coast Guard polices the seas. The Navy projects U.S. power around the globe.
The Coast Guard has done well because the nation always gave it the right ships to do the job. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, Congress authorized the Coast Guard to build a new fleet of high-endurance cutters — ships that could sail deep into the open sea and remain there for extended periods in any weather.
Part of the impetus to build these “Treasury Class” cutters (named after former secretaries of the treasury) was the emergence of trans-ocean air travel. The cutters would serve as floating navigation stations to keep the planes on course, as well as to conduct deep sea search-and-rescue operations.
When World War II came, the cutters took on all kinds of dangerous roles, including convoy escort duty. The ships proved so versatile and durable that they remained in active service for 40 years.
The next generation of high-endurance cutters was the Hamilton class, built to meet another new set of challenges. The spark this time was international recognition of the exclusive economic zone, the coastal area (extending 200 nautical miles out to sea) in which a country enjoys special rights for the use of maritime resources.
Protecting our sovereignty over this zone is vital to our national economic interests. Consider fisheries, for example. Stocks in the remote Bering Straits account for about half of our commercial fishing revenues.
Like its predecessors, the Hamilton class has also been called on to meet a range of unanticipated missions — from the Cuban boat lift to Hurricane Katrina relief. These ships have served the nation for more than 40 years and are still at sea.
Now, it’s time for a new class of ships: the National Security Cutter. The goal is the same as for previous generations of cutters: Build them to meet today’s needs; build them with the flexibility to accomplish many missions; build them to last.
Unfortunately, the National Security Cutter got off to a rocky start. Arguably, the Coast Guard has ironed out those early problems. Three ships have been built. The contract for the fourth cutter will be a “fixed” cost.
But if the Office of Management and Budget has its way, the Coast Guard won’t buy any more. That department calls the moratorium a “cost-savings” measure, but it’s a penny-wise, pound-foolish way to save.
The Hamilton-class cutters were built for the Cold War era and are wearing out — fast. It would cost as much to outfit a new Hamilton cutter as it would to build a new National Security Cutter. No other class of ship in the Coast Guard fleet can handle deep-water missions.
The National Security Cutter also brings new meaning to the term “high-endurance.” It can stay on station longer than any other ship in its class. That means it can stalk pirates and drug runners more diligently.
It can stand station against illegal immigrant flows. It can act as offshore headquarters to manage disasters like the Deepwater Horizon platform explosion or a landward catastrophe such as Hurricane Katrina. Most importantly, it can persistently patrol U.S. maritime resources from fisheries to oil platforms.
The National Security Cutter’s capability really matters. Presence at sea is what ensures the sovereignty of American territory at sea. Sacrificing capability means sacrificing sovereignty.
Abandoning the National Security Cutter as a budget-cutting drill makes about as much sense as disconnecting your burglar alarm system, putting up a “no trespassing” sign and telling yourself that your cost-saving approach has beefed up security.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.