BALTIMORE (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard is on the front lines of national security, but it struggles to complete its missions with one of the world's oldest maritime fleets and a multibillion dollar replacement program years behind schedule.
The cash-strapped service operates with frequent breakdowns and obsolete gear in what one U.S. congressman has called a "death spiral," of too few ships and too many missions.
If forced to give up some of its many jobs patrolling U.S. waters, that could mean more cocaine and illegal immigrants entering the United States, and fewer ships protecting boaters and fisheries and cleaning up oil spills, experts said.
More money from Congress to bring its $29 billion replacement program up to date is unlikely, given the belt-tightening U.S. budgetary environment.
"If you have limited resources for operations or for capital assets, something has to give," U.S. Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Reuters.
Signs of out-of-date gear were clear aboard the 270-foot (82-meter) cutter Tahoma, now hauled out of the water to undergo an 11-month makeover at Baltimore's Coast Guard yard.
A yard inspector, Lieutenant Commander Gary Hillman, scrambled to reach a control room through an engine space cluttered by snaking hoses and cables and ringing to the sound of welding.
Dominating the gray-painted control room was a gleaming new propulsion control system, which monitors the 25-year-old cutter's engines as well as propellers' speed and pitch.
The computerized gear replaces a version dating from the 1970s that constantly needed fine-tuning, especially when a big wave smacked the Tahoma.
"It's like you had an Atari (analogue video game player) before and now you've got an Xbox," Hillman said.
The fuel purifier also is being replaced. It was so old that parts were no longer available for it, he said.
Docked nearby was the Harriet Lane, another cutter built in the 1980s and with a history of equipment trouble. In one case, a broken gear on its anchor windlass was so old that a new part had to be custom built, causing a six-week delay.
Admiral Robert Papp, the Coast Guard commandant, told Congress in March that equipment breakdowns in the 77-vessel fleet were so common that the biggest cutters go to sea more than half the time with major gear out of order.
The Coast Guard's 11 missions range from busting drug smugglers to icebreaking. In the last fiscal year, it carried out 20,000 search-and-rescue missions, seized 75 tons (tonnes) of cocaine, detained almost 200 smugglers and conducted more than 10,000 vessel inspections.
The burden falls mostly on the fleet of 378-foot (115-meter) high-endurance cutters, 270- and 210-foot (82- and 64-meter) medium-endurance cutters, and 110-foot (33.5-meter) patrol boats. Some may be twice the age of the sailors on board. The service also operates about 1,400 boats under 65-feet (20-meters) long.
At average ages of about 43 and 23 years, respectively, the high-endurance cutters and patrol boats are three years past the ends of their estimated service lives, according a report by the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released this summer.
The mid-sized cutters also are fast nearing the ends of their estimated service lives.
In fiscal year 2011, the fleet fell about 40,000 hours, or 23 percent, short of its benchmark for operating without major equipment problems, the GAO said.
The number of hours the biggest cutters spent on drug interdiction fell by almost two-thirds from fiscal years 2007 to 2010, mostly because of equipment breakdowns.
The fleet "is in overall poor condition and is generally declining," the GAO said.
The shortfall in operating hours would "likely result in more cocaine and illegal migrants reaching U.S. shores and a decreased capability to protect U.S. waters and fish stocks from the encroachment of foreign fishing vessels," it said.
Representative Frank LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican and head of a House subcommittee on the Coast Guard and marine transport, told a hearing last month the service was caught in a "death spiral" of too few ships and too many missions.
Rear Admiral Ronald Rabago, the head of engineering, responded that individual ships were meeting performance goals, but added: "It is true that in the aggregate our fleet is not achieving those objectives, those targets."
Captain Scott Buschman, the Coast Guard's deputy assistant commandant for capability, knows the ships' weaknesses firsthand. While he was chief of staff for the southeastern United States and Caribbean district in 2010, 10 of the 12 cutters sent to help after the Haitian earthquake suffered serious equipment failures.
"We can never do everything that people ask us to do," he said.
The Department of Homeland Security rejected a GAO recommendation this summer that the Coast Guard reduce its overall benchmark for operating hours without major breakdowns. The target has remained unchanged for at least eight years despite the maintenance headaches.
To deal with equipment problems, the Coast Guard has streamlined maintenance operations and is nearing the end of a 10-year, $453 million program to refurbish some patrol boats and upgrade mid-sized cutters until new ships come on duty.
But a new fleet is barely on the horizon despite a recapitalization plan for ships and aircraft the Coast Guard has estimated could reach $29.3 billion, a forecast price that is up $5 billion in the past five years.
The Coast Guard received only three of four new cutters in the biggest class by the target date of the end of 2011. The last of the six planned might not arrive until 2020, the GAO reported.
The new mid-sized cutters have a final delivery date of 2034 - 13 years late. The last of the patrol boats will not arrive until 2021, five years overdue, the GAO said.
The GAO last year blamed the rising price on schedule slippage and cost overruns, such as an extra $1 billion for shore facilities and spare parts for fast response cutters, which will replace the patrol boats.
The Coast Guard also was rapped by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general in August for rushing construction and purchase of 12 fast-response cutters before they had been thoroughly tested.
Six boats under construction then had to be rebuilt, resulting in 270 days delay for each one.
Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Jackie Frank