Before superstorm Sandy pounded the shores of the East Coast, it had already claimed its first American victims. With the storm still a day from landfall, the U.S. Coast Guard received a distress signal from the tall ship Bounty located approximately 90 miles off the cost of North Carolina.
Tragically, the ship's captain and one of her crew were claimed by the sea, but a matter of hours later, 14 other sailors were safe on shore. All in a day's work for the service whose motto is semper paratus — always ready.
While Congress narrowly averted sending the nation over the fiscal cliff, the next storm looms on the horizon in the form of the debt ceiling and looming spending cuts. Only this time, instead of playing the role of heroes, the men and women of the Coast Guard stand to be among the victims. Despite its vital and omnipresent role protecting America's shores and our mariners from harm, the Coast Guard's budget has been steadily declining in recent years, even as its role has expanded to include maritime homeland security.
The time has come to recognize the true value of the Coast Guard's mission and to include its operations as part of an integrated national defense budget.
Unlike our nation's other military branches, the Coast Guard is not housed in the Department of Defense. It moved from the Department of Transportation to Homeland Security in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and took on an enhanced suite of responsibilities combating the threat of waterborne terrorism.
Because of the history of terror attacks on American soil, we often think first of them arriving via aircraft or in the form of bombings, yet maritime threats have at least as much potential for destruction. In 2008, when Pakistani terrorists mounted a massive assault on 11 sites in Mumbai, India, most of them arrived in the city by way of hijacked fishing boats. In the current geopolitical climate, one of the most likely scenarios for a large-scale terrorist attack involves smuggling a nuclear device across our borders through a seaport. In this case, the Coast Guard — not the U.S. Navy — would be our first line of defense.
The Navy has nearly eight times as many active duty service members as the Coast Guard, yet its budget is 15 times greater. One of the results of this discrepancy is that the average Navy ship is 14 years old, while the average Coast Guard High Endurance Cutter is three times older. As of 2009, the Coast Guard fleet represented the third-oldest naval fleet in the world, younger only than the navies of Mexico and the Philippines. And while Navy ships turn tail and steer clear of oncoming hurricanes, the Coast Guard steams headfirst into them on rescue missions. It is unconscionable for us to continue sending servicemen and women into the heart of nature's most furious storms on ships built before the invention of the smoke detector.
In 2013, Congress is likely to spend more money on development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter than on the acquisition and operations budget of the entire U.S. Coast Guard. The F-35 has yet to fire its first shot during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A unified national security budget would allow lawmakers to draw direct comparisons between military purchasing programs. They could weigh value of investing in new Coast Guard vessels to patrol our shores, rescue stranded mariners and assist in foreign operations against the ongoing sink of resources into a jet fighter that was conceived and constructed to fight the wars of the 20th century.
Savings garnered by cuts in one defense agency could easily be shifted to finance a homeland security agency. For instance, part of the Navy's $16.1 billion shipbuilding budget for 2013 includes two more $2.7 billion Virginia-class submarines, an arguably unnecessary expense in the post-Cold War world. Repurposing money from just one of those submarines could help the Coast Guard buy new ships before large parts of its current fleet are forced into retirement.
If we want the Coast Guard to continue living up to its motto of semper paratus, Congress must reassess its commitment to ensuring the service can also remain semper potens — always able. Combining the Coast Guard budget with the rest of our nation's armed services would be a win for our maritime first responders.
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. His email is email@example.com. Michael Conathan is CAP's director of ocean policy. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.