Coast Guard says budget request will delay Deepwater

A project to upgrade the Coast Guard's aging fleet will fall behind schedule if it does not receive more than the $500 million slated for it in the president's 2004 budget request, a Coast Guard spokeswoman said Tuesday.

At proposed funding levels, the multibillion project, known as Deepwater, will likely extend beyond its planned 30-year time frame, according to Lt. Cmdr. Andrea Palermo, a Coast Guard spokeswoman. The 30-year estimate was based on the program being funded at $500 million annually in 1998 dollars, she said. This would amount to $578 million for fiscal 2004, but the administration's budget request does not adjust for inflation.

This would not be the first year that funding for the program has fallen short, said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based defense consulting group. Thompson estimated that in the past three years, the program has been funded at nearly $400 million below the level originally planned.

"The impact will be quite serious," Thompson said. "The Coast Guard is already operating the oldest fleet in the world. Its aircraft and communications systems are antiquated. Without adequate funding, it will not be equipped for the future."

The Deepwater acquisition project is a $17 billion effort aimed at replacing old ships and aircraft and outfitting vessels with state-of-the-art navigation and communications equipment. The project focuses on modernizing equipment used for missions at least 50 miles offshore, such as drug seizures, tracking down illegal immigrants and carrying out search-and-rescue missions.

In June 2002, several months behind schedule, the Coast Guard awarded a joint $11 billion contract to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to build the next generation of deepwater ships and aircraft. The team plans to build 91 new ships, 35 airplanes, 34 helicopters and 76 unmanned aerial vehicles, with the first new cutters ready in five to six years.

The new equipment will be critical to helping the Coast Guard meet its ballooning demands, Thompson said. Right now, the Coast Guard is one of the best-managed agencies in the federal government, but still has trouble keeping up with drug smugglers and other routine duties because of unreliable, aging equipment, he added.

"The equipment can't match the capabilities of drug cartels," he said. "The boats aren't fast enough and the communications abilities aren't agile enough."

The Coast Guard's overall resources are "grossly stretched" and the agency will have trouble meeting its burgeoning responsibilities, Thompson predicted. In addition to routine missions, the agency now plays a large role in homeland security and recently sent cutters to the Persian Gulf.

"It's like NASA," he said. "Everybody loves and respects what [the Coast Guard] does, but when it comes time to gather votes for more funding, it slips through the cracks."

Thompson said he is optimistic that the Coast Guard will eventually receive more money once the Homeland Security Department is better established. The Coast Guard is part of Transportation, but will join the Homeland Security Department on March 1. It will remain separate from the other agencies shifted into the department. Thompson said that if the agency doesn't get more money for Deepwater, he fears it will take a major lapse in port security for Congress to notice the inadequate funding.

Despite the budget shortfall for Deepwater in 2004, Palermo said the Coast Guard is pleased with the current level of overall support the president and lawmakers have shown the agency. Overall, Bush requested $6.7 billion for the Coast Guard in his fiscal 2004 budget request-a 10 percent increase over his fiscal 2003 request.

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