Coast Guard Modernization Moves Full Steam Ahead
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 2, 2004 With the approach of its 214th birthday this week, the U.S. Coast Guard is undergoing the largest and most sweeping modernization in its history, the Coast Guard commandant said during a joint interview with the Pentagon Channel and the American Forces Press Service.
Adm. Thomas H. Collins said Operation Deepwater, a long-term project designed to replace all the Coast Guard's major aircraft and vessels, will bring new capabilities to the force needed at a time when operational tempo is "very, very high."
Plans call for the Coast Guard to replace all ships in what the service calls its "white hull fleet" the patrol boat, law enforcement and security fleets that Collins acknowledged are "old and tired."
In fact, Collins said, the Coast Guard's fleet is among the oldest in the world. "If you count the major maritime nations of the world and their navies and coast guards, we are 39 out of 41 in terms of having the oldest fleet on this planet," he said. "So it's with some sense of urgency for us to replace them, particularly in today's world when we are working them hard in the national interest."
Earlier this year in his "State of the Coast Guard" address, Collins pointed to serious "warning signals" that show this "aging and technologically obsolete" fleet may threaten the Coast Guard's ability to sustain its readiness in the future.
"We are experiencing system failure at a steadily increasing rate," he said. For example, the Coast Guard's HH-65 helicopters, which Collins called the "core of our helicopter fleet," have experienced 70 in-flight power losses since October. As a result, he said, the Coast Guard has had to institute operational flight restrictions to maintain safety.
Last year, the Coast Guard had 676 unscheduled maintenance days for its cutters, a 41 percent increase over the previous year. "This is equivalent to losing the operating hours of four cutters," Collins said. And the service's 110-foot cutters, "all well beyond their planned service lives," have experienced 20 hull breaches. "Yes, that's water coming in resulting in emergency dry docks," the commandant said.
To address these and other shortcomings in its vessels and aircraft, the Coast Guard is undergoing the biggest acquisition in its history. This "big gulp theory of acquisition" will continue over a 20-year timeframe, but Collins said it "can't come fast enough in my mind."
When completed, the Coast Guard's new Integrated Deepwater System will include three classes of new cutters and their associated small boats, a new fixed-wing manned aircraft fleet, a combination of new and upgraded helicopters, and both cutter-based and land-based unmanned aerial vehicles.
Collins said this "network-centric system" will go a long way toward enhancing the Coast Guard's coastal and deepwater maritime capabilities, as well as its ability to conduct surveillance and tracking all vital to the service's missions.
Among projects on the drawing board, he said, is a 150- to 160-foot patrol boat, to be built with composite hull materials that will make the vessels lighter, faster and easier to maintain. "That's exciting," Collins said. "We are trying to accelerate it."
In addition, construction is expected to begin soon on a new 4,000-ton national security cutter, with delivery slated for fiscal 2006.
As part of this modernization, the Coast Guard recently replaced its seagoing and coastal buoy tender fleet, which Collins said are affectionately referred to in the service as the "black hulls" due to their paint color.
Also new are some of the service's 47-foot motor lifeboats, designed for first- response rescues in high seas, surf and heavy weather environments.
Both new additions are "terrific, terrific platforms," Collins said.
The commandant said these new vessels, and other anticipated additions through Operation Deepwater, are arriving at what he called "an incredibly important inflection point in the evolution of the Coast Guard."
"We are in the midst of decisions and actions that will lay the groundwork in determining the Coast Guard of tomorrow," he said. "We are also defining and developing the competencies our people must have to continue operational excellence in tomorrow's missions, using tomorrow's equipment."