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Coast Guard hurries to address recent rise in mission-related deaths

Review will examine whether additional post-9/11 responsibilities are partially to blame, commandant says.

In light of a recent increase in mission-related deaths, the U.S. Coast Guard will perform a "stem-to-stern" review that will potentially reduce the overburdened service's missions and skill sets, Commandant Adm. Robert Papp said during a State of the Coast Guard speech Thursday.

The service has lost 14 aviators and one Maritime Safety and Security Team member in the past two years, largely during routine missions. "I've spoken at too many memorial services," Papp said. "We've also had several serious boat accidents. This is unprecedented. It's unacceptable. And we've got to do something about it."

Though an aviation safety assessment study is ongoing, Papp said the number of USCG casualties demands immediate corrective action. As a result, Papp announced that the service will undergo a full review of deployable specialized forces, focusing specifically on capabilities added since the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy.

During the past decade, the service has added a number of new, highly technical skill sets and missions without seeing a corresponding increase in membership or technical resources. As a result, the force is overburdened, Papp said, adding he fears there are too few service members for the tasks required. "We've thrown many, many new activities and proposed capabilities out there for our people to train to," he said. "Because there are so many, they don't become experts at any of them."

Papp said his greatest concern is that the service is attempting to do "more with the same." Before Sept. 11, the Coast Guard had a $3 billion budget. After the terrorist attacks on that day, the service's budget rose steadily, reaching its current $10 billion mark. But, with the rising deficit plaguing the nation and renewed congressional focus on budget cuts, he expects the service's funding to plateau this year.

"The budget is not going to be growing on the path that it has for the last 10 years," Papp said. "If the budget levels out we're not going to continue to do more with the same level of funding. Now, if they did cut our budget, then I'll start talking about less and what we can do with less. But I'm not there yet. What I'm talking about is really managing what we have to the best of our ability."

Given the service's finite resources, he hopes the survey will allow the Coast Guard to focus more on its most essential functions, and, potentially, do away with some of the capabilities that have been added in recent years. "We may need to reduce the number and range of capabilities we've added since 9/11, until properly resourced, and this will be acceptable," Papp said during his speech on Thursday. "I openly acknowledge that the Coast Guard does not have the resources to perform at 100 percent in every one of our statutory missions on every given day."

Papp added: "I fear that our focus on reorganization and expanding missions post-9/11 have taken the edge off our skills across the service -- and particularly our seamanship and airmanship skills." He pointed to a July 2010 accident in which three Coast Guard aviators were killed while flying a helicopter from Astoria, Ore., to Sitka, Alaska. Papp said the mission was routine. "All they were doing was taking off from one airport. … It was not an equipment failure," he said. "I'll just leave it at that."

Ensuring that service members are not simply qualified to perform specific tasks, but are actually proficient in them will be key, Papp said. Accidents, like the Oregon crash, could be a result of service members being expected to do too much, he said. "Is the fact that we've lost 14 aviators in two years directly attributable to that? I ask myself that question," he said. "I don't think it's directly attributable. But what it does, I think, is it's a mind-set. … You're training so hard on so many things, that when you're doing something routine, you're not keeping your head within the cockpit enough."

Papp expects to sign off on the survey charter, which is currently under review, in the near future. He expects to have the results by early August. Meanwhile, some changes in training already have begun. For example, "hook-and-climb" training throughout the Coast Guard has recently been ended. Maritime Safety and Security Team members had been learning to hook wire-and-rope ladders onto the sides of noncompliant vessels and pull themselves up over the side. Concerned about overburdening the MSST, Papp recently canceled the program.

"We've stopped training for hook-and-climb until somebody demonstrates to me that there is a need for us to do it, or that the capability to do it [does not reside] in other places in the government," he said. "Seals, for instance, I know Seals are capable of doing it. … Do we need to duplicate it in the Coast Guard? Maybe. But that has to be a conscious decision."

"Our 'can-do' attitude is both a blessing and a curse," Papp told the assembled Coast Guard members and retirees at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling on Thursday. "Too often we have pursued activities and capabilities that we were not asked to do, not tasked to do, and not resourced to do. Before we take on any new initiatives, we're going to take a hard look at their impact on our people, operations and logistics. We're going to cost them out, and ensure we understand their full ramifications."