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.

“I am worried about what lowered funding would mean not only for our readiness today, but with significant cuts slated for acquisitions, what that means for our preparedness for future activity, including the need to replace our polar class icebreakers,” Begich said.

Papp acknowledged that the Coast Guard maintains an aging fleet and that demand for its services is on the upswing.

“Unfortunately, like the weather and the seas we encounter on a daily basis, the Coast Guard cannot control the fiscal environment in which we operate,” he said. “We will make the best use of the resources you provide to faithfully and effectively undertake operations in the areas of greatest risk to the nation while recapitalizing our cutters, boats and aircraft to address current and emerging threats particularly in the offshore environment.”

Panel members expressed less concern about the proposed budget for another agency with a representative before the committee on Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The president has proposed a modest spending increase to maintain satellite tracking capabilities, ocean observation, fish stock assessments, and basic research into climate and marine debris, among other programs.

But Begich expressed concern over the impact of furloughs necessitated by the sequester. And Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said NOAA services are desperately needed in the Red River Valley, which faces the potential for record-breaking floods this spring as a result of snow melt – the region experienced an additional half-foot of snow last week as a result of an unusual mid-April storm.

“For a while we thought the Fargo-Morehead area was going to be fine,” Klobuchar said. “The chance of a flood was low and there now is a 40 percent chance that this flood will set a new record and a 75 percent chance it will be at least the second highest on record.”

Officials in the region depend on base flood predictions and planning from the National Weather Service, a part of NOAA, to address the situation, Klobuchar said, and residents are concerned that sequestration will deprive them of vital resources.

Kathryn D. Sullivan, the acting NOAA administrator, said that despite the cuts and looming furloughs, “we will make sure we have a tailored approach to our core of critical services so those go uninterrupted to the American people.”

NOAA needs flexibility to deal with sequestration and is in the process of negotiating with personnel to lessen the severity of the cuts.

“We’re unhappy about sequester and the sort of harsh and blunt realities that it imposes on us but we are pleased we’ve been able to soften the blow on the order of up to four days of furlough agency-wide that is part of what has allowed us to take some of the impact off of the weather service,” she said. “That is still a tough thing to do but it brings the furlough impact down to a level that managers throughout the agency commonly deal with in dealing with employee illness or vacation levels.”

Sullivan said NOAA “will make sure that we provide our managers with the flexibility needed to adapt to emerging situations.”