Their repertoire expanded, the Coast Guard is up a creek without a paddle.
WASHINGTON -- The Coast Guard's high-endurance cutter Midgett plies the waters of the Pacific from the Arctic Circle to the equator, chasing fast-moving boats smuggling cocaine off South and Central America and assisting in the search and rescue of king crab fishermen in the perilous Bering Sea.
Commissioned in 1972 and based in Puget Sound, the Midgett is the newest of the Coast Guard's 12 378-foot cutters. Though it has been well maintained, it is starting to show its age.
"We are looking at engines and machinery that is nearing 40 years old and technology that is 50 years old," said the Midgett's captain, George Russell. "These cutters have a lot of life left in them, but they won't last forever."
In many ways, the Midgett symbolizes the dilemma the Coast Guard faces in meeting new homeland security responsibilities with a fleet of aging boats, ships and aircraft.
Once part of the Transportation Department, the Coast Guard has been folded into the Department of Homeland Security, where its added duties include everything from escorting Washington state's ferries to conducting air intercept operations with armed helicopters over national security events like last year's political conventions.
And as the Coast Guard focuses increasingly on the "up-tempo operations" required to guard the nation's ports and waterways, there is growing concern whether it has enough equipment, personnel and money to fulfill such traditional missions as search and rescue and fisheries enforcement.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the number of operational hours the Coast Guard has spent on port, waterway and coastal security has increased 1,200 percent, according to a study from the Government Accountability Office. Meanwhile, hours spent on search and rescue were down 22 percent, illegal drug interdiction down 44 percent, protecting marine species down 26 percent and foreign fishing boat enforcement down 16 percent.
Before 9/11, the Coast Guard was spending roughly a third of its time on security-related missions and two-thirds on other missions. That has now flip-flopped, the GAO said.
"There is no doubt there has been a substantial shift," said Margaret Wrightson, the GAO's homeland security director. "The Coast Guard has all these balls in the air and they are running as hard as they can."
The Coast Guard's commandant, Adm. Thomas Collins, admits the pressure on the Coast Guard has grown since 9/11 and concedes the Coast Guard's aircraft and ships are deteriorating at an "alarming" rate.
Collins said homeland security issues are now on the "front-burner," but he insisted the Coast Guard has continued to meet all of its other responsibilities.
"We have not stepped back one iota," Collins said in a telephone interview.
Along Washington state's inland waters, the Coast Guard has more than 20 boats and ships, ranging from 25-foot response boats to the large cutters. Recently, work was started on a new $16 million state-of-the-art command center in Seattle. One of the Coast Guard's 13 elite Maritime Safety and Security Teams is also based in Seattle. The 75 members of each team have been trained in everything from underwater port security to the "non-permissive" boarding of suspect vessels.
"The Coast Guard in Puget Sound, everywhere for that matter, is still able to complete its missions," said Chief Petty Officer Adam Eggers, a Coast Guard spokesman in Seattle. Even though increased maintenance and lost patrol days can be frustrating, "we simply refuse to let anything stop us from carrying out our duties," he said.
The Coast Guard fleet is the third oldest naval fleet in the world, trailing only Mexico and the Philippines.