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Coast Guard Pilots In Mass. Feel Sequester Pinch

In the wake of budget cuts, the U.S. Coast Guard is rethinking a contract to purchase more of the new Ocean Sentry aircraft, pictured above at Joint Base Cape Cod. They’re two-times more fuel efficient than the planes they replace, but each costs almost $40 million. (Andre Gellerman for WBUR)

In the wake of budget cuts, the U.S. Coast Guard is rethinking a contract to purchase new Ocean Sentry aircrafts, pictured above at Joint Base Cape Cod. They’re two-times more fuel efficient than the planes they replace, but each costs almost $40 million. (Andre Gellerman for WBUR)

BOSTON — While the U.S. Coast Guard is the smallest of the nation’s armed forces, it’s the largest component of the Department of Homeland Security, and across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration will cut deep into its operations.

Effects In Mass.

Joint Base Cape Cod serves an area that stretches along the coast from the Canadian border to southern New Jersey. In an average year, these guardsman will save 58 lives at sea. But these days the Coast Guard also has to save money. Nationally, the sequester cut $350 million this year from the Coast Guard’s $8 billion budget.

“In general, what the sequester has done for the Coast Guard is it has caused us to reduce our day-to-day operations by about 25 percent,” said U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp.

U.S. Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Robert Papp. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

U.S. Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Robert Papp. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

That’s because the Coast Guard can’t touch most of its fixed expenses, including buildings, infrastructure and the biggest item, salaries. Pay for the 42,000 guardsmen and 8,000 civilians is off limits. That leaves operations.

Papp says he’s letting officers on the ground, sea and air decide what goes and what stays.

“All those commanders are closer to the action, they’re closer to the activities, they understand the threats and challenges much better than I do,” Adm. Papp said. “So I give them the broad guidance, which we call ‘commander’s intent,’ then it’s their job as leaders to exercise judgment in carrying out those missions.”

Search And Rescue Still A Top Priority

Cmdr. David Husted, operations officer at Joint Base Cape Cod, is head of the Coast Guard’s mini air force located near Falmouth. Those who fly also fix their aircraft, and on the day I visited, crew members were hanging by bungee cords repairing part of a wing.

“If my phone rang right now, or the search and rescue alarm went off, you would see probably four of these guys get down as quickly as they can and go grab their gear and go to the aircraft outside that’s ready to go fly,” Cmdr. Husted explained.

But they’re flying less. Sequestration means no more public air shows or holiday demonstrations, fewer maritime and border surveillance missions or flights to check on vessels that might be carrying drugs. One Coast Guard admiral estimates an extra $1 billion in illegal drugs will make its way to our shores because of the sequester.

But for Cmdr. Husted, search and rescue is still the top priority.

“We’re focusing on those capabilities that are going to save lives,” he said.

On Cape Cod, pilots and their crews will bear most of the budget cuts. Coast Guard aviators will get 50 fewer hours in the air each year.

“They’ll still be trained in all the mission sets, they just won’t be as experienced,” Husted said. “Instead of having three-hour training flights, I now do two-hour training flights. Flying is a perishable skill. If you don’t do it frequently enough you’re not as proficient at it. So the pilot’s are still flying as frequently as they would in the past, they’re just not flying for as long.”

Lt. Daniel Clooney, who has been at this air station for about a year and flying for about seven months, hopes to make the Coast Guard his career. But for young pilots, cuts in flight hours means a slower climb up the ranks.

“This past week I flew four times. The week before that it was three times. So I’m still flying, but they’ll shorten the amount of time with our patrols,” Lt. Clooney said. “But I try to make the most out of every flight, every little flight hour. I’m jumping at the chance to get it, and I’m trying to be as productive as I can to become the most proficient at the aircraft.”

A Decade Of Cuts

This is just the first year of sequestration, a decade-long period of budget cuts. Adm. Papp fears that in the future he’ll have to cut guardsmen and admit fewer students to the service academy.

“My biggest concern is we send young people, you know, in their early 20s, out in helicopters, aircraft, ships and boats in the middle of the night in the worst of weather, and we want them to be properly prepared and trained to take on those dangerous missions,” Papp said.

Papp is hoping for the best, but in the tradition of the Coast Guard’s motto, “semper paratus” or “always ready,” he is preparing for the worst.

To buffer the impact of sequestration in future years, Papp is eyeing one of the Coast Guard’s biggest-ticket items: its new Ocean Sentry aircraft. They’re two times more fuel efficient than the planes they replace, but each costs almost $40 million. So Adm. Papp is rethinking the service’s $3 billion contract with European manufacturer Airbus, and he’s taking advantage of how the sequester is affecting the U.S. Air Force.

Because of the cuts, it seems the Air Force can’t afford to fly planes it recently purchased and it’s offering them for free. Adm. Papp is first in line.

“If you can get aircraft for free and they are brand new you save a lot in your life-cycle costs and it’s a very intriguing, attractive deal for me,” Adm. Papp said.

It’s not a done deal yet, but it could help keep the Coast Guard afloat during hard times — harkening back to the days it began as a way to fund a young, bankrupt nation. Originally known as the Revenue Cutter Service, it was created to collect taxes from commercial shippers and discourage smuggling.

“There is a bit of irony in fact that there is a cut in revenue,” Adm. Papp said. “You know, the revenue produced by the Revenue Cutter Service and the Customs Department actually funded our federal government almost all the way up to the first World War.”

Then Congress passed the federal income tax, but these days that’s not enough to float the boat, and the Coast Guard — like the rest of the federal government — is struggling to navigate a sea of red ink.

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