US Coast Guard missions in doubt as aging ships wear out

* Congressman says Coast Guard in "death spiral"

* Big cutters patrol half the time with major gear out

* Coast Guard fleet one of world's oldest

By Ian Simpson

BALTIMORE, Oct 6 (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard is on thefront lines of national security, but it struggles to completeits missions with one of the world's oldest maritime fleets anda multibillion dollar replacement program years behind schedule.

The cash-strapped service operates with frequent breakdownsand obsolete gear in what one U.S. 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 U.S.waters, that could mean more cocaine and illegal immigrantsentering the United States, and fewer ships protecting boatersand fisheries and cleaning up oil spills, experts said.

More money from Congress to bring its $29 billionreplacement program up to date is unlikely, given thebelt-tightening U.S. budgetary environment.

"If you have limited resources for operations or for capitalassets, something has to give," U.S. Representative John Mica, aFlorida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation andInfrastructure 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Signs of out-of-date gear were clear aboard the 270-foot(82-meter) cutter Tahoma, now hauled out of the water to undergoan 11-month makeover at Baltimore's Coast Guard yard.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 spacecluttered by snaking hoses and cables and ringing to the soundof welding.


Dominating the gray-painted control room was a gleaming newpropulsion control system, which monitors the 25-year-oldcutter's engines as well as propellers' speed and pitch.

The computerized gear replaces a version dating from the1970s that constantly needed fine-tuning, especially when a bigwave 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 thatparts were no longer available for it, he said.

Docked nearby was the Harriet Lane, another cutter built inthe 1980s and with a history of equipment trouble. In one case,a broken gear on its anchor windlass was so old that a new parthad to be custom built, causing a six-week delay.

Admiral Robert Papp, the Coast Guard commandant, toldCongress in March that equipment breakdowns in the 77-vesselfleet were so common that the biggest cutters go to sea morethan half the time with major gear out of order.


The Coast Guard's 11 missions range from busting drugsmugglers to icebreaking. In the last fiscal year, it carriedout 20,000 search-and-rescue missions, seized 75 tons (tonnes)of cocaine, detained almost 200 smugglers and conducted morethan 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) patrolboats. Some may be twice the age of the sailors on board. Theservice also operates about 1,400 boats under 65-feet(20-meters) long.

At average ages of about 43 and 23 years, respectively, thehigh-endurance cutters and patrol boats are three years past theends of their estimated service lives, according a report by theGeneral Accountability Office, the investigative arm ofCongress, released this summer.

The mid-sized cutters also are fast nearing the ends oftheir estimated service lives.

In fiscal year 2011, the fleet fell about 40,000 hours, or23 percent, short of its benchmark for operating without majorequipment problems, the GAO said.

The number of hours the biggest cutters spent on druginterdiction fell by almost two-thirds from fiscal years 2007 to2010, mostly because of equipment breakdowns.

The fleet "is in overall poor condition and is generallydeclining," the GAO said.

The shortfall in operating hours would "likely result inmore cocaine and illegal migrants reaching U.S. shores and adecreased capability to protect U.S. waters and fish stocks fromthe encroachment of foreign fishing vessels," it said.

Representative Frank LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican andhead of a House subcommittee on the Coast Guard and marinetransport, told a hearing last month the service was caught in a"death spiral" of too few ships and too many missions.

Rear Admiral Ronald Rabago, the head of engineering,responded that individual ships were meeting performance goals,but added: "It is true that in the aggregate our fleet is notachieving those objectives, those targets."


Captain Scott Buschman, the Coast Guard's deputy assistantcommandant for capability, knows the ships' weaknessesfirsthand. While he was chief of staff for the southeasternUnited States and Caribbean district in 2010, 10 of the 12cutters sent to help after the Haitian earthquake sufferedserious equipment failures.

"We can never do everything that people ask us to do," hesaid.

The Department of Homeland Security rejected a GAOrecommendation this summer that the Coast Guard reduce itsoverall benchmark for operating hours without major breakdowns.The target has remained unchanged for at least eight yearsdespite the maintenance headaches.

To deal with equipment problems, the Coast Guard hasstreamlined maintenance operations and is nearing the end of a10-year, $453 million program to refurbish some patrol boats andupgrade mid-sized cutters until new ships come on duty.

But a new fleet is barely on the horizon despite arecapitalization plan for ships and aircraft the Coast Guard hasestimated could reach $29.3 billion, a forecast price that is up$5 billion in the past five years.

The Coast Guard received only three of four new cutters inthe biggest class by the target date of the end of 2011. Thelast of the six planned might not arrive until 2020, the GAOreported.

The new mid-sized cutters have a final delivery date of 2034- 13 years late. The last of the patrol boats will not arriveuntil 2021, five years overdue, the GAO said.

The GAO last year blamed the rising price on scheduleslippage and cost overruns, such as an extra $1 billion forshore facilities and spare parts for fast response cutters,which will replace the patrol boats.

The Coast Guard also was rapped by the Department ofHomeland Security's inspector general in August for rushingconstruction and purchase of 12 fast-response cutters beforethey had been thoroughly tested.

Six boats under construction then had to be rebuilt,resulting in 270 days delay for each one.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Daniel Trotta and JackieFrank)