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COMMENTARY: WAY TOO THIN

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THE THREAT

0320, 14 May, 2014. Off the coast of New Jersey, a merchant ship has stopped to lower a pair of rigid-hull inflatable boats. Each boat carries six al-Qaeda terrorists, armed with AK-47s and hand grenades. The boats come ashore, where they are picked up by two vans, which split up. One heads to Wayne, New Jersey, the other to Columbia, Maryland.

2337, 26 May, 2014. In the Situation Room, the President of the United States slumps down as the situation has ended. Terrorists have managed to strike the homeland, this time shooting up two shopping malls: The Willowbrook Mall and the Columbia Town Center. The death toll is over 250, and local emergency response workers are overwhelmed with the wounded and dealing with the IEDs left in the malls. Foremost among Americans’ questions: How did this happen?

 

The Mumbai attack, which occurred in November, 2008, is a glaring wake-up call – and America could see it happen here.

 

SEABORNE INFILTRATION

India, which does not enjoy warm relations with all of its neighbors, has a heavily guarded land border. However, the Mumbai terrorists dodged that heavy security. They out-flanked it and came ashore at Mumbai from the sea. That same scenario could happen here in America.

 

Consider this: The total land border of the United States is 12,034 kilometers. Of that, about three-fourths are with Canada. Only 3,141 kilometers are on the border with Mexico. The total United States coastline is 19,924 kilometers – about 50 percent longer than the total American land borders. It is over six times the length of the U.S.–Mexico border.

 

While the 12,034 kilometers of land borders are guarded by the Customs and Border Patrol, with over 56,500 personnel and a $10.1 billion 2008 budget, the United States Coast Guard has to make do on a $9.955 billion FY10 budget with under 42,000 full-time personnel. Even if you add the reserves, the Coast Guard is covering more coastline with fewer people.

 

FEWER SHIPS

Worse, the Coast Guard is staring a smaller fleet in the face. The twelve Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters are to be replaced by eight Bertholf-class national security cutters, a 33 percent reduction in the force. The 29 medium endurance cutters are to be replaced at some point (if ever) by 25 new “offshore patrol cutters” that are presently vaporware.

 

Meanwhile, the government spends billions of dollars for other purposes. The Heritage Foundation reported that every year, $9 billion is spent because Congress has not implemented efficiencies recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services. That is almost 90 percent of the Coast Guard’s FY 2010 budget request.

 

WHAT IS NEEDED?

The Coast Guard needs to be upsized, and fast. They also need far more technology. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) like the MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4A Global Hawks would help the Coast Guard monitor large expanses of coastal waters.

 

The systems are very cheap - $20 million per Predator system (4 UASs and the ground control system), and $37.6 million per Global Hawk. Purchasing the Coast Guard 40 Global Hawks would cost $1.5 billion at the fly-away cost. Thirty Predator systems would cost $600 million. The increased surveillance assets would be a start.

 

The other asset the Coast Guard needs is more hulls in the water – of all classes. More of the Bertholf-class cutters, more medium-endurance cutters, and a lot more patrol boats. More ships will mean that the Coast Guard can maintain a stronger presence. The existing fleet, even when supported by helicopters, can only cover so much ocean.

 

BUILD NOW, OR PAY LATER

What makes the shortfall worse is that the Coast Guard has to do more than just secure the coasts. They also maintain navigational aids, carry out search-and-rescue missions, and even deploy overseas. The United States Coast Guard is stretched thin – too thin to secure our borders.

 

America could wind up paying for that thin level of protection down the road. To double the size of the Coast Guard would not be beyond the budgetary capabilities of the United States – if the politicians are serious about securing over 60 percent of America’s border.