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Trump’s Military Buildup Threatens to Gut U.S. Coast Guard

The armed services’ poor cousin is fixing to get a whole lot poorer.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.

While U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday touted a dramatic buildup of the U.S. military aboard the Navy’s newest carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, his government quietly unveiled plans to gut the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Office of Management and Budget is targeting roughly 10 percent budget cuts for the tiny and always cash-strapped military branch. One Republican lawmaker now warns those cuts could cripple the under-resourced and overstretched Coast Guard’s efforts to protect 95,000 miles of American coastline and U.S. interests abroad, playing an especially big role in interdicting drug smugglers.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), member of the House Armed Services Committee, railed at Trump’s budget plans.

“It’s nonsensical to pursue a policy of rebuilding the Armed Forces while proposing large reductions to the U.S. Coast Guard budget,” he wrote in a letter to the president Thursday. Cutting the Coast Guard’s budget would “serve to the detriment of U.S. national security and create exposures that will most certainly be exploited by transnational criminal networks and other dangerous actors,” he wrote.

The $1.3 billion cut to the U.S. Coast Guard in fiscal year 2018 includes a directive to scrap the building of a $500 million ship, the newest National Security Cutter (NSC).

There’s just one problem: The ship’s production is already underway. Shipbuilding company Huntington Ingalls announced it would build the latest cutter, the Coast Guard’s ninth, on Dec. 30. And now it, and its shipbuilding yard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, are adrift as the OMB directive came without warning.

“The impact of OMB’s direction to the Coast Guard is unknown at this time. We have already purchased long lead materials and have begun pre-production,” a spokesperson for Huntington Ingalls told Foreign Policy.

The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, but it’s still the fifth branch of the military.

Though it’s the smallest of the military branches, the Coast Guard punches above its weight, particularly on issues of importance to the Trump administration including illegal immigration, protecting U.S. borders, and drug interdiction. (For example, the Coast Guard seized 144.8 metric tons of cocaine in 2015 alone.) It guards the entire American coastline with a total force of 56,000 — just over the size of the New York City police force.

“We will continue to work with the administration to ensure that Coast Guard funding requirements are fully understood,” Lt. Cmdr. Dave French, a spokesperson for the Coast Guard, told FP. French declined to comment further on the proposed cuts, saying the Coast Guard was too early in the budget planning process to offer anything further.

And the Coast Guard has for years been trying to carry out its mission with aging equipment, making any budget cuts even more painful.

“The big Coast Guard challenge over the last 15-20 years is it’s been essentially operating with legacy ships that are 40, 50, 60 years old,” one congressional staffer familiar with the issue told Foreign Policy.

The new cutter in the crosshairs is part of a new flotilla meant to replace cutters that have been in use since the 1960s. “The acquisition of the NSC is vital to performing DHS missions in the far-offshore regions, including the harsh operating environment of the Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea and Arctic,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said in a statement.

For patrolling both the North and the South Poles, the U.S. Coast Guard has one heavy icebreaker, commissioned in 1976, and one medium icebreaker commissioned in 2000. Russia, by comparison, has 40, with 11 more in development. The Coast Guard is counting on getting more money — not less — to build a replacement for the nearly mothballed Polar Star.

“The highways of the Arctic are icebreakers,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said in January. “Russia has superhighways, and we have dirt roads with potholes.”

Photo credit: Mike Hvozda/U.S. Coast Guard

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer