In the dead of night, Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class Darren Harrity swam steadily through 57-degree water, fighting five-foot waves and 30 mph winds. After a hoisting mechanism malfunctioned during a search-and-rescue operation, the rescue swimmer was forced to make four trips to pull as many men 250 yards to shore. His story was highlighted by Mr. John Acton (Chairman, Coast Guard Affairs Committee, Navy League of the United States) during a hearing reviewing U.S. Coast Guard infrastructure, improvements, and funding before the House Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.
Members and witnesses alike lauded the work of the Coast Guard but also shared areas where the agency is struggling, particularly due to budgetary constraints (that can lead to malfunctions like the one causing Harrity’s swim). Chairman Duncan Hunter (CA-50) shared how the agency has been forced to make hard choices about which programs can be supported by their limited funding. This has resulted in more money going to acquisition programs but has left others, such as shore-side infrastructure, shore maintenance, and environmental cleanup and restoration programs lacking. Vice Adm. Charles Ray (Deputy Commandant for Operations, United States Coast Guard) stated that the shore infrastructure backlog exceeds $1.6 billion; additionally, the shore maintenance backlog is $708 million. Witnesses were unhappy with funding shortfalls proposed in the president’s budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2018; Mr. Acton described it as “break[ing] its promise to this military service … hamper[ing] a service that already operates on a shoestring.”
The state of our nation’s icebreakers, a hot topic in light of the opening Arctic, were also discussed. Ray gave accolades to the newly-formed Integrated Program Office (which was created in partnership with the U.S. Navy) that is addressing icebreaker acquisition in a way that drives affordability and reduces schedule and technical risk. Mr. Acton stressed more funding is necessary to achieve the recommended fleet of three heavy and three medium icebreakers, saying an additional $750 million is needed in FY 2018 for icebreaker acquisition to reach its 2020 production goal.
Chairman Hunter closed his opening statement by stressing how important it is for Congress to understand the Coast Guard’s needs and shared that he had requested a project wish list from the agency. Mr. Acton reminded members this is a bipartisan priority, and “investments in infrastructure, like our ports, maritime highways and navigation systems, historically have been crucial to American prosperity. We are a maritime nation that benefits from global trade and the movement of goods to and from our shores, in and out of our ports, through our inland waterways and ultimately to our homes, is an important part of that economic prosperity.”