In recent weeks, Americans have witnessed some of the most disturbing and tragic television in our history. Hurricane Katrina's wake left a collage of images-loss, grieving, suffering, and devastation. There were, however, also portraits of heroism and hope-such as U.S. Coast Guard helicopters and ships rescuing victims of the storm and the floods that followed in its aftermath. So far, the men and women of the Coast Guard have saved over 33,000 people endangered by Katrina, demonstrating as they have again and again since 9/11 the importance of the many security and safety missions they perform in the service of the nation. Congress should recognize their contributions by fully funding the Coast Guard's modernization budget.
Into the Storm
When disaster struck on August 29, the Coast Guard worked throughout the day and night to rescue 1,200 people stranded by the rising floodwaters. By September 3, the number of lives saved by the Coast Guard alone had risen to 9,500. With 4,000 Coast Guard personnel on the ground and 54 aircraft and 14 auxiliary aircraft logging over 7,000 flight hours to rescue flood victims, Coast Guard support in response to Hurricane Katrina has been invaluable.
Deepwater and the Next Disaster
While the Coast Guard performed valiantly, with a more modernized force it could have done even more. In an effort to confront the challenges of the 21st century, the Coast Guard began planning a modernization program for long-term acquisitions known as the Integrated Deepwater System in the mid-1990s. This proposed system will provide not only new ships and aircraft but also the command-and-control centers and logistical infrastructure necessary for a modern, versatile force. If these capabilities where on hand, with modern helicopters, sensors, and patrol craft, the Coast Guard's search and rescue operations might have been much more effective.
Yet the Coast Guard's modernization program has been chronically underfunded, and increased activities since 9/11 are wearing out equipment much faster than anticipated. Coast Guard officials predict that current assets will reach the end of their predicted lives within five years; they are already experiencing system failures at an increasing rate. Despite the service's dire needs and even though accelerating acquisition would save money in the long run and significantly increase the nation's capacity to combat terrorism and counter serious natural disasters, the House recommended cutting over $200 million from the service's modernization budget for next year.
Make it Right
During a natural or man-made disaster the magnitude of Katrina, only the federal government can mobilize the national response needed to meet the nation's needs. The Coast Guard is a vital part of that response, and it needs better assets to do the job. Congress should ensure that Coast Guard modernization is fully funded before it even thinks about dumping more federal dollars into lesser homeland security priorities like port grants for state, local, and private sector projects that contribute marginally to the overall security of the maritime domain. Congress should fully fund the President's request for fiscal year 2006 and raise the Coast Guard's modernization budget to $1.5 billion the following year.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security, and Alane Kochems is Policy Analyst for National Security and Defense, in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Melanie Youell contributed to this report.