Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said on Thursday that there is an issue of “capacity” when it comes to having the resources to interdict drugs at sea and sustain other service missions and that having more ships assigned to counter the flow of drugs from South America to North America would help staunch drug smuggling.

There are studies that say with 15 to 17 Coast Guard cutters or Navy surface combatants that deploy with Coast Guard law enforcement detachments it would “really take a bigger bite” out of the drug smuggling problem, Schultz told the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Security.

Under questioning by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member on the panel, Schultz said that the Coast Guard commits four ships on a daily basis to U.S. Southern Command and its subordinate command Joint Interagency Task Force-South but generally is providing six to eight ships, plus various aircraft.

“So we throw just about everything I can at that within other competing demands,” Schultz said.

Through various types of intelligence, the U.S. is seeing about 85 percent of the drugs ultimately destined for the U.S. from their departure point, which is typically Colombia, Schultz said. Increasingly, the drugs are headed to Mexico, he said. From there, the bulk shipments of drugs are broken down into smaller packages to be smuggled into the U.S.

In 2018, the Coast Guard interdicted 209 metric tons of cocaine at sea, Schultz said.

“We remove more drugs than all other federal agencies combined on an annual basis,” he said. “That’s the place to get it. There is a conversation about capacity.”

Schultz said the government needs to “keep our foot on the gas” for the service’s medium-endurance cutter replacement, the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC). Contractor Eastern Shipbuilding is currently building the first of 25 planned OPCs for the Coast Guard with initial delivery in 2021.

Notional Offshore Patrol Cutter design is 360-feet long, a 54-foot beam, and 17-foot draft. The Coast Guard says the OPC will be the backbone of its cutter fleet. (Graphic: Eastern Shipbuilding Group.)

In 2017 alone, the Coast Guard lost the equivalent of two major cutters (e.g., over 300 operational days) due to unplanned repairs. Expanding that to the last two years, we have lost three years’ worth of major cutter patrol days. In 2017 and again in 2018, shortages in parts and supplies cost the Coast Guard over 4,500 flight hours each year, or the equivalent of programmed operating hours for seven MH-65 helicopters. Each hour lost in the transit zones keeps us further from reaching our interdiction targets and helps the TCOs deliver their illicit cargoes.

Although Schultz mentioned the “capacity” conversation multiple times during the hearing, he didn’t say that that the Coast Guard wants at least $2 billion annually for its acquisition account and 5 percent annual increases in its operations and support account. The Trump administration is seeking $1.2 billion for Coast Guard acquisition in fiscal year 2020.

The Coast Guard is asking Congress to fund an additional armed helicopter, what the service calls Airborne Use of Force Helicopter (AUHF), in the FY ’20 budget, which will help with the “steady presence” the service provides in the drug transit zones. The AUHF helicopters essentially include a Coast Guard marksman that shoots out the outboard engines of high-speed “go-fast” vessels used by drug smugglers at sea.

A spokesman for Schultz told Defense Daily last week that the commandant hasn’t shifted from the minimum thresholds the Coast Guard believes are necessary to successfully recapitalize its assets and maintain readiness.

Schultz told the panel that his top priority is to “maximize readiness” for all of the Coast Guard’s missions. Coast Guard readiness is at a “critical juncture, a tipping point of sorts on that front,” he said, adding that after about a decade of flat-line operations and support budgets, “readiness is eroding.”

In his written remarks for the hearing, Schultz said that in 2017 unplanned repairs for its ships cost it the “equivalent of two major cutters” or more than 300 operational days, and in the last two years parts shortages of cost the service more than 4,500 flight hours annually, “or the equivalent of programmed operating hours for seven MH-65 helicopters. Each hour lost in the transit zones keeps us further from reaching our interdiction targets and helps the TCOs deliver their illicit cargoes.”

TCOs refer to Transnational Criminal Organizations, which are organized crime networks that work across national borders.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), chairman of the subcommittee, told Schultz “You certainly have my commitment as chairman of this committee to not only fully, fully support but help to accelerate the recapitalization of the Coast Guard fleet. So whatever you need, just let us know.”