LOS ANGELES – The Coast Guard is “approaching a tipping point” when it comes to maintaining a service that can respond in times of need, the service’s top officer said Thursday, requesting more money from Congress and highlighting a backlog of projects.
Adm. Karl Schultz, the Coast Guard commandant, said that he is thankful for an increase in funding the service received in 2019 to build new vessels but that the service still has an operations budget that has “essentially been flatlined” over the past eight years.
“In a modestly funded organization like the Coast Guard, this has resulted in deferred maintenance, a strained and undersized workforce and antiquated information systems,” Schultz said. “And we continue to face an extensive shore infrastructure backlog that now exceeds $1.7 billion. That’s particularly problematic for an organization with facilities spread far and wide across the nation.”
Schultz requested a 5 percent increase in the service’s 2020 operations budget, up to $7.9 billion, and an overall budget of $11.34 billion, up from $10.6 billion. The service has long had a reputation for keeping aging equipment working, and Schultz said it faces “very real readiness challenges” that must be dealt with.
The comments came during a “State of the Coast Guard” speech, nine months after Schultz took over as the service’s top officer.
In that time frame, he has been forced to deal with a government shutdown caused by disagreements over President Donald Trump’s proposed southern border wall that left service members without pay for weeks and most civilian employees furloughed.
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard, has also reprogrammed millions of dollars in Coast Guard funding to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement amid a crackdown on illegal immigration by the Trump administration.
Schultz did not mention the reprogramming in his speech but addressed it in an interview Tuesday as he flew from Washington to California. “If the department needs to reprogram money, that is a part of doing business,” he said.
The admiral also downplayed the effects of the shutdown, which internal Coast Guard documents first reported on by the New York Times said caused “tremendous backlogs of contractor work” in the service and a “domino effect” in delayed maintenance that could leave the service short on aircraft.
Schultz indicated that the problems were not as severe as characterized. The service should be “pretty much reconstituted” by May, he said, and is about 75 percent of the way back now.
“You know, there are facts and there are emotions around facts,” Schultz said. “As we got our arms around it, I would tell you we will be full-up ready as we would have been without the shutdown as a Coast Guard by the summer, if not sooner.”