Coast Guard Warns Budget Shift Opens U.S. to More Smugglers

WASHINGTON – The commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard warned a Senate panel on Tuesday that shifting the focus of the U.S. Navy from the Western Hemisphere to the Pacific region will lead to an uptick in drug smuggling.

Admiral Robert J. Papp, appearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard to discuss the service’s 2014 budget request, said the service branch has worked cooperatively with the Navy on interdiction operations along Central American smuggling routes.

The Coast Guard, in fact, maintains law enforcement detachments on many Navy ships to strengthen efforts against transnational criminal organizations that “are financed by narcotics that arrive by way of the sea, leaving behind a wave of crime and instability in their wake.”

Drug smugglers, Papp said, are “growing smarter, bolder and they’re taking greater risk and increasing danger to our homeland.” But the Obama administration’s proposal to shift the focus of naval operations contained in the 2014 budget request means the Coast Guard won’t be able to rely to as great an extent on their detection and monitoring assistance in the Caribbean.

“Unfortunately, with the reduction of resources, my highest focus is for the Western Hemisphere – the arctic, closer to our shores and most notably in the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific where we have the drug trafficking routes,” Papp said, adding that in past years the availability of Navy personnel and vessels “has been a force multiplier for us.”

“So the loss of the Navy ships in the Caribbean ultimately is just going to result in more drugs that are making it through,” Papp said.

The Joint Interagency Task Force South, a multiservice organization that counters illicit trafficking operations and cooperates on security matters, reports that the U.S. is currently intercepting about one-third of the attempts to smuggle drugs around Central America. Last year, Coast Guard interdiction efforts resulted in 107 metric tons of pure cocaine. By comparison, all the law enforcement agencies in the lower 48 states interdicted only 40 metric tons of cocaine.

“So, more drugs,” Papp said. “And we’ll have fewer assets that we can re-divert to other missions like migrant interdiction and other Coast Guard activities in those areas.”

Regardless, Papp assured the committee that the shift in focus for the Navy is the right decision.

“The Coast Guard, I think, can provide contributions and we have in fact provided contributions there in the past,” Papp said. “There are many nations, including China, that are looking to the US Coast Guard as a role model to the maritime force that they should be building, that controls the rule of law to the sea and I think that we could serve that purpose out there.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, said the pivot toward the Pacific isn’t “a bad idea,” but the fact that the loss of naval presence in the Western Hemisphere isn’t “being replaced by anything…creates these problems and they sound to be pretty significant.”

Papp also said sequestration, the mandated across-the-board budget cuts implemented in March, leaves the Coast Guard “well below the numbers of ships that we need down there to interdict.”

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), the subcommittee chairman, expressed concern about the Coast Guard’s capital program that delays some critical acquisitions.

“While our nation struggles with finding a responsible balance of fiscal restraint with a budget that meets our needs and responsibilities, I am quite concerned about the nearly billion-dollar reduction proposed” for 2014, Begich said.

Last year, Congress passed a Coast Guard authorization bill that exceeded the Obama administration’s request by more than $700 million.