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Coast Guard needs new Cutters to help enforce maritime security

By Steve Bittenbender

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security testified before a Senate panel last week that while its agencies and other countries are cooperating to ensure the safety of the United States’ maritime border, more work and equipment are essential to maintaining that security in the years to come.

America has more than 95,000 miles of shoreline, which includes land adjacent to oceans, lakes and rivers. In addition, U.S. Coast Guard officials must patrol the waters up to 200 miles beyond the shores and sometimes even further than that depending on the agreements the U.S. has in place with other countries and organizations. The vastness of the shores presents opportunities for human trafficking, smuggling narcotics and other organized criminal activities in almost any part of the country.

“Securing our maritime borders requires a layered, multi-faceted approach of authorities, capabilities, competencies and partnerships,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Peter J. Brown told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on July 15. “The Coast Guard is uniquely positioned to cover this broad range of maritime border security requirements.”

One area where Brown said the Coast Guard needed additional help was in replacing its fleet of ships, better known as cutters, that patrol the country’s waterways. In some cases, Coast Guard crews are manning boats that are up to 50 years old, well beyond the norm for operating vessels. Brown said the Coast Guard is working to replace 110-foot patrol boats with faster, modern boats, with an order of eight cutters currently being filled. Those eight ships cost about $640 million each.

But, the Coast Guard’s “highest priority,” Brown said, was its need for 25 cutters that can work in offshore areas more effectively than the older boats in the fleet.

“These assets are essential to interdicting drug smugglers and undocumented migrants at sea, as well as rescuing mariners, enforcing fisheries laws, responding to disasters, and protecting our ports,” he added.

Because of its limited resources, the Coast Guard can only respond to roughly a third of the threats of which it’s aware. That means, Coast Guard ships may only be stopping about 10 percent of the illegal drugs shipped on open waters, Sen. Ron Johnson, the committee chairman said. However, that haul has still been substantial as Coast Guard cutters and aircraft have seized more than 450 metric tons of cocaine, worth an estimated $15 billion, since 2010.

One area that may need special emphasis is the area around the Great Lakes. While the Caribbean and the Mexican land border are known better as hotspots for drug traffic, the upper Midwest has its fair share of problems, too, the Wisconsin senator added.

“In particular, the ability of small vessels to traverse the Great Lakes and blend in with commercial trade and recreational boaters creates a challenging enforcement environment,” Johnson said in his opening remarks. “As a Wisconsinite, I can attest to this observation firsthand.”

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the committee’s ranking Democrat, added another concern is the flow of immigrants who try to enter the country through boats – either real or makeshift – through the Gulf of Mexico. Carper, who spent time with Coast Guard officials in his home state prior to the hearing, said he supported President Obama’s call for $1 billion in aid packages to Central American countries as a way to stem the tide of refugees seeking to come to the country.

Carper also added that Homeland Security organizations not only need to keep up the interdepartmental cooperation but that agencies need to be funded appropriately as well.

“Those officials also called on those of us in Congress to ensure that our maritime security agencies have the resources they need to bolster their capabilities to stay ahead of current and evolving threats,” Carper said in a statement.


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