A driving, wind-swept rain pummels the deck of the USCG Stratton. A typical day at sea for the Coast Guard’s newest National Security Cutter when it plys the Bearing Straits or protects fisheries in America’s Arctic waters. But today the Stratton is not at sea—it’s commissioning day at the pier in Oakland, California. The crew is being piped aboard for the first time. Speeches made, and then it is down to the business of protecting America’s sovereignty at sea.
The National Security Cutters are replacing the Coast Guard’s Hamilton class—a family of ships that first went to sea in the 1960s. (A Hamilton-class ship was berthed behind the Stratton during the commissioning ceremony.) It is long past time to retire these Vietnam-era craft. They are expensive to maintain and don’t have a fraction of the endurance, speed, or capability of the new cutters. Keeping them around is penny-wise and pound-foolish.
The Obama Administration has proposed budgeting for a sixth new cutter. There is talk that that would be it—the last one. That would be a huge mistake. Even if the U.S. never fights another naval war, there will always be a need to keep the seas safe. There will always be search-and-rescue missions, environmental disasters to deal with, smugglers of people and drugs to combat, poaching fisheries to stop, encroachment on natural resources that has to be dealt with, and piracy and waterborne terrorism to be prevented.
While there were cheers, claps, and smiling faces at today’s ceremony, despite the dismal weather, this is a sad occasion if it winds up being the beginning of the end of Coast Guard’s major shipbuilding program.
At a time when the Navy is struggling to keep enough ships at sea to ensure our security and the shipyards that build our ships are in danger of collapsing from lack of work, it’s exactly the wrong time to talk about closing down the building of the National Security Cutter.
Today the men and women of the Coast Guard endured the driving rain and wind with indifference as they boarded their new ship. They will keep that demeanor every day at sea, whether it’s aboard a state-of-the-art craft or a ship old enough to draw Social Security. That is because that is the kind of people they are—bred for selfless service. They will go to sea in whatever ships we provide. They will try not to fail us—if they do fall short, it will be because we didn’t give them the equipment they needed to do the job.
Today, when the weather turned sour, I retreated to a nearby gym and watched the ceremony remotely on a TV screen. The men and women of the Coast Guard don’t have that option—they go down to the sea in ships every day—that’s what protects America’s sovereignty at sea.