The chairman of the House panel that oversees funding for the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday asked Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft how his service will be able to operate and maintain its fleet of National Security Cutters (NSCs), particularly if 12 of the ships are built.

Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), at the start of his questioning of Zukunft during a budget hearing, said the NSC is an “outstanding” ship, but asked how the service will fund the operational costs of the cutters “as we look down the road toward a 12 National Security Cutter fleet, which is I believe the recommendation.”

Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), HAC HS chairman.
Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), HAC HS chairman.

A spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee (HAC) later clarified for Defense Daily via email that Carter, who chairs the Homeland Security subcommittee, was referring to members in general in the House are recommending a twelfth NSC for the Coast Guard.

The original program of record for the NSC was eight ships equipped with state of the art C4ISR capabilities to replace 12 aging Hamilton-class vessels, but Congress, driven by Senate appropriators, so far has provided full funding for 11 of the ships. Industry and many congressional observers believe that Congress will fund a 12th NSC, even though the Trump administration hasn’t included construction of another ship in its fiscal year 2019 budget request.

Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] builds the NSC at its shipyard in Mississippi. So far, six NSCs have been delivered to the Coast Guard and a seventh vessel is scheduled for delivery this year.

Zukunft, who is retiring next month, told Carter that the key for the Coast Guard to be able to operate and maintain its aircraft and ships is for Congress to approve 5 percent annual increases in the service’s operations and support budget. In fiscal year 2018, Congress approved a 4 percent hike to the Coast Guard’s operations and support account, the first time since the Budget Control Act went into effect in 2011 that the Coast Guard has been funded above the budget floor mandated by the seven-year-old restrictive budget bill.

Zukunft said that since 2011, Coast Guard has prioritized funding to operate and maintain its ships and aircraft at the expense of shore infrastructure, adding that the service has $1 billion shortfall for O&M that translated to a $1.6 billion backlog in deferred maintenance.

Vice Adm. Karl Schultz, President Donald Trump’s nominee to succeed Zukunft as commandant, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that full funding of operation and support account is necessary because, “The increased sophistication and capabilities of our new platforms make them considerably more expensive to maintain and operate.”

On other matters, Zukunft told the panel that the planned acquisition of 35 new inland cutters that aid in navigation of the nation’s river system will be based on a parent craft design. He said that in his own discussions with shipyards that build tugboats along U.S. inland rivers, these vessels can be “configured” to be a Waterways Commerce Cutter “for a very modest cost.”

Congress provided $26.1 million in FY ’18 to accelerate the acquisition of the Waterways Commerce Cutter and the Coast Guard is seeking $5 million for the program in FY ’19 to continue project planning. Zukunft said that if Congress continues to provide funding for the program, a new vessel can be launched within two years.

The Waterways Commerce Cutters will replacing an antiquated fleet of inland river cutters that Zukunft said support $4.6 trillion annually in commerce transiting the nation’s waterways.

Zukunft also told the subcommittee that it’s important that funding continue for the Coast Guard’s Heavy Polar Icebreaker Program beyond just one vessel. He said the U.S. shipbuilding industrial base is excited for the program, but that to earn a return on investment in tooling up and in investing for the first ship, additional vessels will have to be procured.

The Coast Guard’s requirements for new polar icebreakers include three heavy and three medium ships. The administration is seeking $750 million in FY ’19 for the first heavy polar icebreaker, which the Coast Guard expects to be delivered in 2023 if the schedule holds.

Congress has also appropriated $300 million in the Navy’s shipbuilding account that Zukunft said is aimed at buying a second heavy polar icebreaker. He pointed out that Congress has also authorized the Navy to build a heavy polar icebreaker.

The Coast Guard is expected to select a contractor in FY ’19 to complete design and begin construction on the first new icebreaker.