The Coast Guard helps protect America's waterways, coasts, and the Great Lakes from terrorist threats, as well as rescuing boaters in distress and stopping drug smuggling. But an aging fleet with frequent mechanical problems is preventing the Coast Guard from meeting all its targets for missions.
The Coast Guard's fleet is getting so old that many ships no longer can perform certain missions, the Government Accountability Office warns in a report that urges the service to set more realistic goals.
Most of the vessels are either approaching or past their life expectancies. The Coast Guard is working to replace the vessels with modern ships, but in an era of fiscal budget cutting, new ships have been slow to arrive.
"According to the Coast Guard, the reduced operational capacity of its legacy vessel fleet is a prime contributor to the Coast Guard’s declining ability to fully meet its missions," the GAO said in a report released Tuesday.
Among those missions are securing the nation's ports and waterways from threats and rescuing anyone in danger in a marine environment.
The largest problem with the fleet is mechanical issues that are lowering the number of hours ships can be on duty, and the GAO recommends the Coast Guard lower the number of hours a ship is suppose to serve to be more "realistic." Service hours goals haven't been met in seven years because of the aging fleet, the report said. And more accurate evaluations of how long a ship will be on duty can help with better planning to carry out missions, the report said.
But the Department of Homeland Security said it didn't want to do an across-the-board cut in operational hour targets, stating it could hurt ships and equipment that so far haven't had any problems.
The cost of upkeep for the vessels is growing.
In 2008, the Coast Guard spent $46.1 million on repairs and upkeep, but in 2009 that cost almost doubled to $85.2 million. The Coast Guard said part of the reason is that its reorganized its maintenance command structure and is getting better at identifying issues that need to be fixed.
The Coast Guard is a branch of the armed services under the jurisdiction of the Homeland Security Department. They are tasked with keeping U.S. waterways safe from attacks, aiding boats in distress and helping to stop drug smuggling.
The Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002 in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks to help unify the nation's security and anti-terrorism programs.
The Government Accountability Office is an independent watchdog for Congress tasked with investigating the federal government and finding wrongdoing and areas for improvement.