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|Posted: Wed Jul 06, 2005 10:15 pm Post subject: Coast Guard plagued by breakdowns
|By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY
Wed Jul 6, 7:07 AM ET
The Coast Guard's ships, planes and helicopters are breaking down at record rates, which may threaten the service's ability to carry out its post-9/11 mission of protecting ports and waterways against terrorism.
Key members of Congress, maritime security experts and a former top Homeland Security Department official say that the fleet is failing and that plans to replace the Coast Guard's 88 aging cutters and 186 aircraft over the next 20 years should be accelerated.
"This nation must understand the dire situation in which the Coast Guard now finds itself," says Sen. Olympia Snowe (news, bio, voting record), R-Maine, chairwoman of a Senate Coast Guard subcommittee. She favors replacing the Coast Guard's "deepwater" fleet - the ships and aircraft capable of operating far offshore - over 10 to 15 years.
Former Coast Guard commandant and Homeland Security deputy secretary James Loy says "the stakes are simply too high in the post-9/11 environment" to continue to allow the Coast Guard's aging equipment to continue to deteriorate. Some ships are more than 50 years old, well beyond the recommended age for replacement. (Related story: Sailing far from smooth)
The Bush administration wants to increase the amount of time it will take to replace a fleet that's among the oldest on the globe - older even than fleets owned by nations such as Algeria and Pakistan. The "deepwater" replacement program, conceived in 1998 as a $20 billion, 20-year plan to replace the fleet, could be increased to 25 years under a White House plan.
The strategy would save the government money in the short term. The White House budget office declined to comment.
Snowe calls the idea a "violation of common sense" amid mounting concern that terrorists will try to sneak weapons of mass destruction into the USA through a port.
Adm. Thomas Collins, commandant of the Coast Guard, says he supports the White House plan and has enough refurbished equipment to operate the fleet. But this month, he told Congress his equipment is failing at unacceptable rates:
• In fiscal 2004, the engines on the Coast Guard's 95 HH-65 helicopters suffered power losses at a rate of 329 per 100,000 flight hours, up from 63 per 100,000 flight hours in fiscal 2003. The comparable Federal Aviation Administration standard is 1 per 100,000 flight hours.
• There have been 23 hull breaches - holes that let in water - requiring emergency dry-dock repairs in the 49 110- and 123-foot patrol boats since 2001.
• Each of the dozen 378-foot cutters, most of which operate in the Pacific, suffers a significant engine or hydraulic or refrigeration system breakdown on every patrol.
• For all major cutters and patrol boats, the number of unscheduled maintenance days was 742 in fiscal 2004, up from 267 in fiscal 1999. The loss of cutter days in fiscal 2004 equated to losing 10% of the major fleet for an entire year.
Stephen Flynn, a maritime security expert and former Coast Guard officer, says the agency is "operating at the level, in many instances, of a Third World navy."
The Coast Guard was moved into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 and given primary responsibility for maritime security in addition to its regular duties. The added responsibilities include patrolling the nation's 361 ports and 95,000 miles of coastline, boarding and inspecting tens of thousands of cargo ships and recreational boats, and reviewing security at the nation's commercial ports.
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