as Aging Fleet Wear Out
The US Coast Guard is on the front lines of national security, but it struggles to complete its missions with one of the world's oldest maritime fleets and a multibillion dollar replacement program years behind schedule.
The cash-strapped service operates with frequent breakdowns and obsolete gear in what one US congressman has called a "death spiral," of too few ships and too many missions.
If forced to give up some of its many jobs patrolling US waters, that could mean more cocaine and illegal immigrants entering the United States, and fewer ships protecting boaters and fisheries and cleaning up oil spills, experts said.
More money from Congress to bring its $29 billion replacement program up to date is unlikely, given the belt-tightening US budgetary environment.
"If you have limited resources for operations or for capital assets, something has to give," US Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Reuters.
Signs of out-of-date gear were clear aboard the 270-foot (82-meter) cutter Tahoma, now hauled out of the water to undergo an 11-month makeover at Baltimore's Coast Guard yard.
A yard inspector, Lieutenant Commander Gary Hillman, scrambled to reach a control room through an engine space cluttered by snaking hoses and cables and ringing to the sound of welding.
Dominating the gray-painted control room was a gleaming new propulsion control system, which monitors the 25-year-old cutter's engines as well as propellers' speed and pitch.
The computerized gear replaces a version dating from the 1970s that constantly needed fine-tuning, especially when a big wave smacked the Tahoma. "It's like you had an Atari (analogue video game player) before and now you've got an Xbox," Hillman said. The fuel purifier also is being replaced. It was so old that parts were no longer available for it, he said.
Docked nearby was the Harriet Lane, another cutter built in the 1980s and with a history of equipment trouble. In one case, a broken gear on its anchor windlass was so old that a new part had to be custom built, causing a six-week delay.
Admiral Robert Papp, the Coast Guard commandant, told Congress in March that equipment breakdowns in the 77-vessel fleet were so common that the biggest cutters go to sea more than half the time with major gear out of order.
The Coast Guard's 11 missions range from busting drug smugglers to icebreaking. In the last fiscal year, it carried out 20,000 search-and-rescue missions, seized 75 tons (tonnes) of cocaine, detained almost 200 smugglers and conducted more than 10,000 vessel inspections.
The burden falls mostly on the fleet of 378-foot (115-meter) high-endurance cutters, 270- and 210-foot (82- and 64-meter) medium-endurance cutters, and 110-foot (33.5-meter) patrol boats. Some may be twice the age of the sailors on board. The service also operates about 1,400 boats under 65-feet (20-meters) long.
At average ages of about 43 and 23 years, respectively, the high-endurance cutters and patrol boats are three years past the ends of their estimated service lives, according a report by the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released this summer.
The mid-sized cutters also are fast nearing the ends of their estimated service lives.
In fiscal year 2011, the fleet fell about 40,000 hours, or 23 percent, short of its benchmark for operating without major equipment problems, the GAO said.
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Editor's Note: But let's be sure to waste billions on failed Green Energy projects best left to research entities until the technology is sound...great leadership.
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