To Fight Drug Smuggling, USCG Fleet Needs Upgrades

The Coast Guard's ability to interdict drug smugglers and immigrants in the Gulf of Mexico has fallen steadily since the 2009 sequestration cuts, and it is asking for more money in fiscal year 2016 to help turn the tide.

Out of the $10 billion dollars in budget requests, the Coast Guard is asking for only a few hundred million to help repair and replace ships that have far outlasted their planned service life - some cutters are approaching 60 years of service. The funds requested by the Coast Guard would help the service purchase 6 smaller "fast response cutters" and would be a start in purchasing replacements for the Coast Guard's "medium endurance" ships.

The Coast Guard currently has 27 active medium endurance ships, the 270-foot Famous class and the 210-foot Reliance class cutters. The Reliance cutters are the older ships, all 14 having been commissioned between 1964 and 1969, while the newest ship, the Famous-class cutter USCGC Mohawk was commissioned in 1991. The medium endurance craft are primarily responsible for interdicting drugs and immigrants out on the open oceans. They have crews of around 100 Coast Guardsmen and normally operate out at sea for 6 to 8 weeks at a time.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), estimates that due to inadequate funds to procure and maintain their ships, the Coast Guard is only able to intercept about 20% of the drugs coming out of South America. This decline started way back in 2009, when the first round of sequestration cuts caused a sharp drop-off in the USCG's ability to meet their deployment targets.

In 2009 the Coast Guard was aiming for 2,555 ship-days spent targeting smuggling operations, and they managed to get only 2,036 - almost exactly 80%. Since then, the problem has only gotten worse. In 2013, the Coast Guard had lowered their target number of days down to 2,008, but managed only 1,346 or 67%. In 2013 alone, an estimated 17.3 metric tons of cocaine and other drugs made its way into the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.