The commandant of the Coast Guard, in Maryland this week to visit a newly launched national security cutter, said Thursday that he expects to deploy two of the state-of-the-art vessels off the East Coast.
Initially, the Coast Guard had planned to berth all eight national security cutters on the West Coast. Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the top officer in the service, said the plan is being revisited.
"The Pacific presents us with greater challenges then does the Atlantic," Papp said. "You need our more substantial ships out on the Pacific because of the weather conditions and the distances that they have to steam between places to be able to refuel and resupply. … [But] I don't want to leave our East Coast unprotected."
Papp was to join the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton in Baltimore later Thursday.
Launched last month, the 418-foot Stratton is on its shakedown cruise, giving its 121 crew members a chance to familiarize themselves with the ship and its capabilities and taxpayers a chance to see what their money bought. The ship visited Annapolis on Monday and arrived Tuesday in Baltimore.
The Legend-class national security cutter is the most advanced ship in the Coast Guard, intended to operate at higher speeds and greater range and endurance than the 1960s-era Hamilton-class vessels they are replacing. Designed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the national security cutter can be used in law enforcement, search and rescue, and defense missions.
The Stratton is the third such cutter to be completed. It is to join the first two, the Bertholf and the Waesche, in Alameda, Calif. A fourth vessel is being built in Mississippi, and the Coast Guard recently awarded the contract for a fifth. A five-year plan approved by the Obama administration calls for funding for the sixth, seventh and eight in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
The vessels are part of a 25-year, $24.2 billion fleet upgrade program known as Deepwater, which has come under congressional scrutiny for design problems and delays. After entrusting the program to a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Northrup Gumman, the Coast Guard took over direct management of Deepwater in 2007.
Papp, who became commandant last year, acknowledged the challenge of spending in the current fiscal climate but expressed cautious optimism Thursday for the eventual completion of all eight national security cutters.
"This is a good investment for our country, an investment that's going to last the country probably somewhere from 40 to 50 years in a very uncertain future," he said. "It's money well spent, and we're trying to make that case wherever we can."
Papp said the national security cutters to be deployed off the East Coast would likely be berthed at a deepwater port such as Boston, Charleston, S.C., or Miami. But he said their presence in the Atlantic would have an effect on Baltimore.
"The Coast Guard provides a layered maritime security approach that requires us to put high-endurance ships far off our shores and our fishery zones and our exclusive economic zone to provide a persistent presence out there," he said. "So, the direct impact on a place like Baltimore is that we are positioned well off the coast to intercept any threats."
This week, officials from the Coast Guard and Morgan State University signed an agreement that will give students access to Coast Guard mentorships, internships and scholarships. The service, which is seeking to diversify its membership, has signed similar agreements with other historically black colleges and universities.
Papp said he has had "very serious concerns" that the Coast Guard "has fallen behind in terms of our workforce reflecting the rich diversity of our country."