Coast Guard is pressed to meet security demands, GAO says

Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen acknowledges "significant challenges" related to aging assets.

The Coast Guard, hampered by an aging fleet and manpower problems, faces challenges in meeting its homeland security demands as well as its traditional role of maritime safety, Government Accountability Office officials told a House appropriations panel Wednesday.

Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen acknowledged at a hearing of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee his service has "significant challenges."

GAO noted the Coast Guard has mounting anti-terrorist demands for vessel escorts, security patrols of infrastructure and inspection of maritime facilities at home and abroad as well as non-homeland security requirements.

"In several cases, the Coast Guard has not been able to keep up with these security demands in that it is not meeting its own requirements for vessel escorts and other security activities at some ports," said John Hutton, director of GAO's acquisition and management section, and Stephen Caldwell, GAO's director of homeland security and justice, in a joint report. The ports were not identified.

Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Price, D-N.C., praised the fiscal 2009 budget's extra $65 million that Congress approved last year for increased port security, environmental protection and marine safety. But he said money is not the only problem facing the Coast Guard, problems that include "financial management inertia," contract management problems, and the age of the fleet.

The Coast Guard's Deepwater Program, a fleet and aircraft modernization initiative, remains behind schedule.

"Our readiness is continually challenged by our reliance on outdated, rapidly aging assets, systems and shore infrastructure," Allen said.

In particular, Allen said he did not have the manpower and ships for protection of tankers arriving to fill liquefied natural gas terminals at various ports. "No, we do not have the resources" to inspect those terminals, Allen told Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.

The GAO officials also said Coast Guard units will need to significantly expand workloads to meet LNG security. Allen called for a national discussion for protection from other hazardous products, not just LNG.

Members of both parties praised Allen for Coast Guard achievements last year that included saving 5,000 lives and intercepting nearly $5 billion in cocaine.