Vice Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard's chief of staff, told the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee that an independent technical review of the agency's proposed fast response cutter should be completed within three to four weeks. Once the evaluation is in hand, the Coast Guard will decide whether to proceed with the planned procurement or search for another model that is already commercially available, said Allen, who has been confirmed to be the next Coast Guard commandant.
The new boats are a critical component of the Coast Guard's $24 billion Integrated Deepwater System, which is intended to replace aging equipment and vessels over 25 years. Allen also said the Deepwater program could be placed on an accelerated schedule and be completed by 2016.
The Coast Guard received widespread praise for its actions during Hurricane Katrina late last summer, unlike the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Indeed, Allen was named to replace former FEMA Director Michael Brown as the top federal official in charge of relief and recovery operations.
But subcommittee members at Thursday's hearing questioned whether the Coast Guard has enough funding to buy new equipment and accelerate Deepwater.
"Frankly, the Coast Guard's fleet of ships and planes are fitted for the last century," said Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. "If we do not invest in the Coast Guard now, it could become the FEMA of 2010."
Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., agreed. "It doesn't appear to me that what we've got in the pipeline for you is what you need to do your job," Gregg told Allen.
Allen said the Coast Guard plans to procure 58 new patrol boats. He said he believes commercially available boats could be bought for between $20 million to $30 million each.
If the agency has to buy commercial boats, the Coast Guard will do a market survey to determine what industry has to offer and how quickly new boats can be deployed, Allen said after the hearing.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she is concerned that funding for the Coast Guard's traditional missions, such as environmental protection, is being cut by $230 million in the administration's fiscal 2007 budget request. "If the budget doesn't provide you with proper funding for all your missions, we're simply asking the Coast Guard to do more and more with less and less," she said.
Allen said field commanders will make decisions about how resources are best used, but pledged that the agency's readiness will not be diminished.