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Coast Guard Using Old Equipment

June 22, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Tracked by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the boat carrying suspected drug smugglers headed up the Yucatan channel, rounded Cuba’s western end and slipped in Havana’s harbor. There it mingled with a crowd of fishing boats. The cutter lurking outside lost it.

Better radar would have helped. But the Coast Guard _ saddled with aging equipment to rescue boaters and catch drug traffickers, illegal immigrants and fish poachers on the high seas _ does not have it.

``In a lot of ways, people are at risk,″ said Allen Boetig, a retired Coast Guard commander who recalled losing track of the suspicious craft. ``The problem is, you never know what you lose. You never know how much drugs you miss, or how many people you didn’t save.″

It is a critical time for the 208-year-old Coast Guard, the nation’s oldest continuous seagoing service.

Since 1992, the Coast Guard has assumed increased responsibilities as its work force shrank by nearly 10 percent. At the same time, its budget has risen just 1 percent a year in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to Congress’ General Accounting Office.

Fears have arisen within and outside the Coast Guard that it will have to start cutting services unless Congress increases its 1999 budget beyond President Clinton’s requested $4 billion.

``It’s time to bolster their forces,″ said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The budget request represents a 3 percent increase over 1998 and includes $35 million from new user fees on commercial ships, a tax strongly opposed by industry.

More broadly, the Coast Guard says it needs billions of dollars to replace old aircraft and cutters _ some of which date from before World War II _ and update sensors, communications and radar systems. It is unclear where the money will come from in a tight federal budget.

It would cost the Coast Guard $8 billion to replace every large ship and aircraft now in service. It is not going to get that much, but even a less-sweeping modernization would be sure to dwarf the service’s regular equipment budget. That has averaged just under $400 million annually in the past decade.

Old technology can hamper work. Frequently pilots who spot suspicious activity cannot fully relay the information to a vessel in the vicinity because of poor communications. Night patrol boats could see better with infrared sensors, and faster boats could help snare drug traffickers.

``We don’t have the speed on our surface craft,″ said Capt. Craig Schnappinger, manager of the service’s modernization program. ``Those are extremely fast cigarette boats that the drug folks use.″

Even with the drag of older equipment, the Coast Guard stopped a record 103,000 pounds of cocaine from entering the United States in 1997 and arrested 233 drug traffickers.

It also reported seizing 50 tons of marijuana, saving 5,000 lives, helping 50,000 boaters in distress, intercepting more than 2,100 illegal immigrants and supervising more than 600 federally funded oil and chemical cleanups.

The Coast Guard has had to do more with less. It has decommissioned old cutters and aircraft and cut 4,000 jobs in four years. Staffing levels were reduced at 20 of 285 stations, although Congress opposed a 1995 proposal to close 23 stations. The Coast Guard Reserve has dipped below 8,000 members.

Cutbacks have meant more work for the Coast Guard’s remaining 34,000 men and women. Eric A. Trent, the service’s master chief petty officer, told a House subcommittee that most enlisted people work long hours, often averaging 80 hours a week.

Trent said he was ``apprehensive and concerned about how much longer this effort can be sustained.″

As anti-drug missions nearly doubled from 1995-97, the Coast Guard spent 14,000 fewer hours on fisheries enforcement. Fully one-third of U.S. marine stocks are now overfished or approaching that condition.

Cutbacks, too, have increased pressures on local and state marine agencies.

``It definitely left a vacuum here,″ said George Burgess, harbormaster in Marshfield, Mass., referring to reduced staffing at the Coast Guard station in nearby Scituate. Burgess’ staff of six patrols two rivers and five miles of open sea that is heavily used by lobster and tuna boats, oil barges and recreational boaters.

For its part, the Coast Guard plays down its troubles.

``This agency is very adept at getting the most from a dollar,″ said Jack O’Dell, a spokesman.

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